Terrorism, Diplomacy, and the State

Former British foreign serviceman and founder of Independent Diplomat, Carne Ross gives his perspective on international diplomacy, the UN, and rethinking the War on Terror.

About Carne Ross

Carne Ross is the Executive Director of Independent Diplomat, a non-profit organization that he founded in 2004 to provide diplomatic advisory services to governments unrecognized by the United Nations or left out of international debates on issues pertaining to them. His clients have included the governments of Kosovo, Somaliland, and the Marshall Islands, as well as the Syrian National Coalition, among others. Before founding Independent Diplomat, Carne Ross served as the Head of the Middle East Section at the British Mission to the United Nations, and negotiated several Security Council resolutions on Iraq after the 9/11 attacks and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For more information on Carne Ross: independentdiplomat.org/about-us/staff/carne-ross/

MM: My name is Marc Masson, and I’m here with Carne Ross, Executive Director of Independent Diplomat. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

CR: Thank you.

MM: Mr. Ross, you’ve had an extensive career in international affairs, serving as the Middle East expert of the British Delegation to the UN Security Council during 9/11 and the Iraq War and as Strategy Coordinator for the UN in Kosovo. What drew you to the foreign service, and what eventually caused you to leave?

CR: What drew me was that I was fascinated by international relations, I loved the outside world, I loved being abroad, I found it gripping and interesting, I loved the idea of being part of that group of people who helped organize the world. Slightly arrogant I believe, but that was the truth. The reason I left was [because of] Iraq. I worked on [the subject of] weapons of mass destruction and inspections for the British Government. I testified, in secret, to the first official inquiry into the war. The government had lied about the war, and had ignored alternatives to war. So when I testified, I resigned.

MM: So that led you to found Independent Diplomat to do diplomacy differently. How has the organization evolved since its found in 2004?

CR: It began in Kosovo where I was working. I started advising the democratically elected government of Kosovo on the diplomatic process on the future of Kosovo, from which Kosovo was excluded. That’s where Independent Diplomat started — it wasn’t an NGO, in those days it was just me. But the model of offering advice and support to a country, a government, a democratically representative government, about the diplomatic processes [affecting] them is what Independent Diplomat does today.

MM: There was a lot of excitement this year on the prospect of the United Nations potentially selecting its first woman to the post of Secretary General. What do you think of the ultimate decision to elect António Guterres of Portugal to the position?

CR: It is fairly interesting because the selection was very different this year from how it has normally been done. Normally it is just the P-5 deciding things together in secret. There was an element of that this year, but also at the same time members of the GA successfully pushed for a much more open process, and for candidates to be questioned by GA members, by any member state of the UN, plus some civil society at some points, to test the candidates on their skills and qualifications. Initially I was very skeptical of this, thinking that is was just a pale imitation of American confirmation hearings. But actually what it produced was a very thorough questioning of the candidates. What this revealed was that one candidate in particular was much stronger than the others. Everybody who attended these hearings said the same thing, which was interesting. Nobody expected this before the process began. The UN expected a woman to be selected, a woman from eastern Europe. The fact that we got a man from western Europe was a surprise, but the reason that happened was because he was so much better than everybody else. And whilst I would have preferred a woman, which I believe was the consensus view at the UN, I think, to be honest, that is it more important to have somebody who is very good, because the UN desperately needs strong and competent leadership. Hopefully António Guterres can provide that.

MM: So do you think that this is a positive sign of the UN reforming itself?

CR: It’s not a revolution, but it’s progress. You know it will be another 8 years until they do it again, which is a long time. It is hardly established procedure yet. But the fact that he was appointed in this way will hopefully give him a greater sense of his own independence and authority, rather than being so politically dependent on the P-5. There is more of a sense this time around that he was picked by the GA as well. In the end it was the Security Council who made the recommendation, and that is the way it is supposed to be in the [UN] Charter, but it is a GA decision. I think that the source of his authority has shifted, and, if he is clever, he could use that to transform the UN and kill the poison of the P-5’s influence at the UN, which is a very pernicious thing.

MM: Do you expect him to reduce the power of the P-5 relative to the GA?

CR: He would never put it that way because he doesn’t want to make enemies of them, but the big power that he has is the power of appointing who runs the parts of the Secretariat [and] the big UN agencies, and normally those jobs have been split amongst the P-5 in a way that hasn’t necessarily promoted the best candidates. So what would be much better is if he appoints very good, competent, independent people who could make independent recommendations to the UN Security Council. That would be a big improvement.

MM: As of late July, the U.N. Peacekeeping Mission to Western Sahara is still not “fully functional” after UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon angered Morocco by referring to its annexation of the region as an occupation in April. Can you tell us more about the politics that may be going in the shadows which are resulting in the current situation?

CR: It’s a good question. Basically what’s happening here is that Morocco is testing the limits of the UN’s willingness to accept its transgressions. So it’s done a couple of things. It has repudiated the personal envoy Christopher Ross a year or so ago, it has tried to get rid of MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara), and at the moment it is building in the liberated zone, the piece of the territory that is not occupied by Morocco, and this too is a flagrant and direct violation of the military agreements that comprise the status quo. Unfortunately, the UN Security Council, influenced above all by France, has refused to stand up firmly against Morocco’s behavior. So Morocco is continuing to push, and that is the sort of meta-strategic explanation of what’s going on. But it reveals a deeper truth — that the UN Security Council has been for a long time unwilling to force Morocco to accept its obligation to hold a referendum for the self-determination of the territory, which Morocco accepted in the agreement that ended the war in 1991. What we’re seeing here is a pattern of Morocco’s repudiation of its own obligations under Security Council resolutions, but at the same time that the Security Council has proven itself unwilling to stand up for its resolutions firmly enough to ensure that Morocco respects its obligations.

MM: In light of the many violent conflicts occurring today within sovereign states, some rooted in international terrorism like ISIS and Boko Haram, what can the international community do to better respond to these conflicts and the resulting humanitarian crises?

CR: I don’t think it’s easy. You have to first of all take a case specific approach. I think that each of these problems has local origins — Al-Shabaab has its origins in the history of Somalia, which most people don’t have a clue about. Boko Haram in Nigeria has its origins in the neglect of the north by a southern based government. ISIS itself flows directly from circumstances inside Iraq during the Allied occupation, and you have to attend to these circumstances if you are going to have any hope of resolving these conflicts. I don’t think that global universalist measures are particularly helpful, [and] they haven’t proven themselves effective. I am very much a believer in bottom-up action rather than top-down. I think that the top-down approach of the global war on terror, a state-based, authoritarian approach based on the use of force and surveillance, has been a total failure and has led to the spread of terrorist violence, not its reduction.

MM: So where are the people leading this bottom-up approach? Are they from the regions affected by these conflicts?

CR: I would submit that the people who best know how to deal with Boko Haram would be found in northern Nigeria. The people who would best know how to deal with ISIS would be in Iraq. Why don’t we ask them what they think for once? We never do ask them, and that’s one the problems.

MM: And then the international community can back their proposals?

CR: [Laughs] Well we are now truly in the realms of fantasy, because that’s not how the “international community” works. Instead diplomats and officials sit in capitals and make up pictures of what they think is happening, and then try to impose their views on reality. That has not proven a very successful approach. Of course, I believe that the international community should support local efforts at peacemaking, but the trouble is that those do not often fit in the agendas of outside powers. The international community, whether it is Russia, China, the US, France, Britain… they’re not disinterested, they are not purely interested in peace. They claim to be, but they are not. They are interested parties with their own geopolitical interests in these conflicts. I’m not saying that they wish to sustain all of them, but there are certainly some cases where they are part of the problem, not the solution.

MM: You’ve been very critical of the current governmental and international institutions controlling our societies and meddling in conflicts — which is part of the reason you left the foreign service. Meanwhile, at Cornell, there are many students interested in pursuing careers in international affairs. What can these students do now or in the future to fulfill their aspirations but at the same time change the current systems of international governance for the better?

CR: I think it is very difficult today, but I think it is a great subject to be interested in. There are thousands of different opportunities and things you could be doing. I don’t necessarily recommend working for a government institution, and that is certainly not the only option. If you do pursue that option, keep an eye on your conscience and your moral compass, because it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of that. Look to others, your friends and your family, to keep you on track. I was involved in many things that turned out to be deeply immoral, which I regret, and I’m afraid that in government you are surrounded by people who go along with that and will reaffirm that view of the world. And that is very unhealthy. What I say to people who ask me about careers in international relations […] is go to international relations, be a part of it, go to the outside world, don’t talk about the rest of the world sitting in Washington. Go to Jordan, South Africa — you will find the experience extraordinary and transformative almost wherever it is, and you will understand those places far better than anyone sitting back here doing regional studies, and that is a very instructive experience. I would also say “stay flexible,” and don’t do anything you don’t love. Life is too short, you shouldn’t compromise. It is difficult finding the right work, and getting paid and paying off your student loans, I know that, but at the same time you should always feel that what you’re doing is in line with your values, and if it is not, you simply will not be happy and there is no point doing it.

A special thanks to Carne Ross for his time and insights and the Einaudi Center for their help in arranging this interview. This interview was conducted on 28 October 2016.