In August 2009, Foreign Policy blogger Michael Wilkerson decided to write a short piece about the intriguing organization run by former British diplomat Carne Ross, Independent Diplomat. Referring to an Associated Press piece and a few other sources, he described Ross’s outfit as diplomats-for-a-fee, professional lobbyists providing unrecognized international entities with the know-how and networks they need to bring up their cases in international arenas. Money would come from either the clients themselves or from foundations and donors eager to help the international representation of micro-nations, autonomous regions, governments in exile and the like. Ross, who says he left the British Foreign Service in disgust after Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, did not appreciate Wilkerson’s snarly tone. He commented, and Wilkerson shot back. Four years before, The Guardian had also published a long piece on Ross.
ID was brought back to the attention of FP’s readers this week with a profile of Ross and an analysis of ID’s activities helping Southern Sudan. The article, written by Cristina Odone, did a good work at, first presenting ID’s activities as groundbreaking, and then deflating it some. In fairness, Ross does most of the inflating himself: he has a knack for web-savvy self-promotion, and grand ideas to express about the democratization of international relations by private actors, the greediness and narrow-mindedness of state diplomacy, or diplomats as an “unaccountable elite”. An “anarchist diplomat”, eager to represent the small and weak in the bleak arenas of world politics. Odone, however, does point to a few problems. While Ross affirms that ID represents only “the good guys”, one would hesitate to qualify some of their clients as such: can the “Georgian dream” coalition, for example, one of their clients, be qualified as one of the good guys? ID is a non-profit organization, but running it might also mean accepting money from unsavory or dubious sources. Also, while in the conclusion of his book (Independent Diplomat, Hurst, 2007) Ross denounces the discrepancy between the power of corporate lobbying and the weakness of many public international entities, picking the good guys among these public entities might be tricky: integrity is ID’s source of legitimacy, but keeping it might be difficult. Such an outfit might also be limited to certain operations: while they provided Southern Sudan with expertise and networks to voice their concerns in the UN’s Security Council, it would have been a bit more difficult for them to weight on the negotiations where the recognition of Southern Sudan was decided.
Finally, Odone emphasizes the diplomatic conservatism of new world powers (China, Brazil, India, etc), that might be a barrier to the activities of the likes of Carne Ross: new states, or states arriving to new statuses in the world system, tend to go for what they see as the traditional way of doing things in the “diplomatic community”. In order to be credible, you have to “look” credible. One can see that in the case of Finland in the 1920s-1930s, with its diplomats eager to look, act, talk like the diplomats of old Europe, or in the first Soviet diplomatic service, that Sabine Dullin for example has described as strongly attached to forms and protocol inspired by old Western European powers. Diplomacy is not just lobbying for specific interests: it is also an artificial space where people with certain norms and standards socialize and interact. ID’s men know these norms and standards, because most of them are former diplomats. But they don’t really “belong” to this diplomatic space, especially since it welcomed new, more conservative actors – they act at the fringes of it.
In the frame of this blog, ID looks like a great cas d’école of informal diplomacy. The phenomenon and the reactions it triggered are not new. NGOs or personalities have done the same thing at different times, sometimes packaging their lobbying into a wider project for the international community: turn-of-the-century movements for international law and peace, for example, lobbied for the emergence of an international community guaranteeing peace. National lobbying for small nations in Eastern Europe also worked the same.
But there are also very contemporary elements in ID’s case. Ross’s rhetoric of grassroots global activism bears resemblance to some of Julian Assange’s musings: old traditions work as impediments to democracy and justice, some forces are deprived of representation in the world as it is, and things should be set right by courageous activists and grassroots movements. The erosion of the nation-state and its legitimacy as the center of international politics also gives a space for these kind of organizations: ID’s March 2012 communique announced that Ross would participate in an exercise exploring Texas’ theoretical secession from the United States… In this case, the confusion in terms reveals a contemporary confusion in notions: can the term “diplomacy” be used in what should be considered as a “domestic” context? There is the same interesting confusion in Ross’ book, where he writes that
“Every action, whether buying fruit, employing a cleaner, or choosing where to take your holidays is international, and is, in its way, a form of diplomacy. Everyone is a diplomat.” (p. 216)
This is interesting because it deprives the term “diplomacy” of its meaning: what I would call “international relations”, Ross calls “diplomacy”. But if everyone is a diplomat, then why would anybody need Ross’ organization? Maybe because diplomacy is still a particular space within international relations, strongly differentiated, and where specific know-how is necessary. Ross’ logic blurs all these lines, in a world where such blurring has become easier.
The end of the Cold War also meant the resurgence of small, semi-official local entities in need of representation but that do not fulfill nation-state criteria, essentially giving birth to an under-growth of international actors in need for representation. Ross’ organization also seems to work mostly in some of the many multilateral settings available today (the UN, the EU, etc). The scene looks a bit like the 1920s, with international organizations and a host of different territories with different statuses.
But, despite Ross’ denegations, ID seems to be mostly about lobbying, consultancy, and public relations activities by former professionals in a specific, highly technical field, with all the problems and dilemmas associated with that. We are switching a set of motivations (national interest, etc) for another one (belief systems about the transformative power of private enlightened activism, philanthropy, economic interests, etc) in a diplomatic system where old norms remain pretty much the standard. What Ross provides is expertise and networks, a sort of attorney service to international actors. His activities catch the eye because of the image one could have of traditional diplomats as extremely important civil servants, loyal representatives of one state. But in the post 9/11 transatlantic world, where notions of national bond are evolving and many are not anymore ready to shout “my country, right or wrong”, some diplomats might consider putting their skills to someone else’ use than their “own” state.
PS. Talking about ID just after a post on Martti Ahtisaari’s CMI brings interesting problems of classification to the surface. Both are clear examples of informal, private, you-name-it “non-national” diplomacy. But at the same time they function at different levels and in different ways.