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What are diplomats for? and are they part of the problem?

Is diplomacy a large-scale, real-life version of the famous Milgram experiment on suffering, responsibility and authority? The reviewer of Carne Ross's ‘The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power And Change Politics in the 21st Century’ is convinced by the arguments

Nizar Manek
4 January 2012

“Diplomacy and diplomats have often aroused suspicion, even ridicule, but they still serve an essential purpose. There is, at present, no obvious alternative”. That was the view Sir Brian Urquhart, former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations, offered in reviewing Carne Ross’ 2007 book (“Are Diplomats Necessary?”, in The New York Review of Books).

Ross’s latest book, “The Leaderless Revolution”, offers an alternative. In this collection of essays, Ross, a disillusioned 15-year veteran of the British Foreign Service, presents a wide range of what effective substitutes and supplements to modern diplomacy might look like. One example is Ross’s own Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group he founded, which helped the government of South Sudan manage the 2005 peace accords and their implementation.

Ross was Britain’s UN expert in Iraq WMD sanctions for about four years. He also covered the Arab-Israeli dispute, the 1988 Lockerbie bombing by Libyan agents, and Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara.

In presiding over these events Ross came to believe that government’s biggest flaw is that “in claiming to arbitrate the world’s problems”, it unintentionally encourages in its protagonists a moral detachment from the consequences of their actions.

For Ross, the corruption was personal. Government, he says, allowed him “to become a guiltless architect of much suffering to others”.

Ross began to realise something was wrong when the British government’s “stories about Iraq stepped from over-simplification to downright falsehood”. He was particularly struck by what he says was government deceit to cover up foul play in the 2003 death of his colleague, Dr. David Kelley, the British biological warfare expert hired to advise the UK delegation about Iraq WMD sanctions. Kelley’s death, which came two days after he was questioned in Parliament about leaking sensitive information, had been ruled a suicide. “On the train to David’s funeral, I asked a small group of Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence colleagues whether any one of us had believed the government’s claims”, Ross says, “but no one spoke”.

Ross argues that the deferral of agency to authority – and the suspension of individual moral responsibility – can incite people to heinous acts. He uses the Milgram experiments, in which subjects were directed to administer increasing levels of electric shock to confederates, to illustrate the problem of obedience in diplomacy. “When people feel no agency and no responsibility for their actions, they can commit horrific actions”, Ross says: “I know this because I was once in a position of Milgram’s test subjects, asked to inflict suffering upon others. Except in my case, unlike his experiment, the suffering was real”.

The essays in which Ross is clearly most in his element – are “The Man in the White Coat”, in which he compares his obedience in Iraq to that of Milgram’s subjects; “Why Chess is an Inappropriate Metaphor” – a comparison of the complexity of international relations to the simplicity of government policy; and “Anarchy = Chaos” – which illustrates how “the ‘zero-sum’ calculus of international bargaining” works against collective interests.

Ross begins by outlining a seemingly disconnected series of events – the decline of the Dow by nearly 1,000 points one afternoon in 2010, the spread of the liquidity crunch to the equity market, and the delay and meagreness of regulatory responses to the ensuing financial crisis. Some readers will justifiably question the need to rehash history in such broad strokes, and the necessity and relevance of the many examples set against each other. But the overall effect is to show the inter-connectedness of events and dispel the idea of “purely random cause and effect”.

By extension, international relations and diplomacy are “more evocative of the swirls and splatters of a Jackson Pollock painting than a chessboard”. A game of chess, in which there are only two players, obliges an artificial divisibility between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. This makes concerted action between state actors under ‘state dominated modes of thinking appear capricious – more like a roll of the dice. For instance, proponents and opponents of sanctions against Iraq by the UN Security Council divided a complex situation “into two distinct and opposing narratives… into competing blacks and whites”.

The UN’s chessboard view of international relations is at best hopeless. Although the UN’s 60 year history has seen a decline in inter-state conflict, “in these successes, new weaknesses have emerged, not least in dealing with the more fluid and boundary-less problems of the 21st century”. The Security Council was established to prevent wars between states, Ross notes, but today, about 80 percent of its agenda concerns “issues involving non-state actors, and conflicts both within and sometimes transcending states”. The argument, which points to the possibility of a “’leaderless revolution’”, is antithetical to Urquhart’s view that there is “no obvious alternative” to the practice of diplomacy.

As such, Ross accords importance to civil society and the politics of personal and direct action, powerful supplements to “the minimalist act of voting”. For instance, Aminatou Haider’s hunger strike drew international attention to Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara since 1975. And in the summer of 1964, about one thousand American students from Northern universities travelled to Mississippi to campaign against racial segregation in Southern States, contributing to the repeal of the Jim Crow laws.

Ross drives home his point with a quote from Gustav Landauer, a leading German theorist on anarchism at the end of the nineteenth century:

‘The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently’.

One criticism that might be made is that Ross appears to generalize all international relations into ‘diplomacy’, and focuses on the deficiencies of the UN as an international platform, initiator of international actions and keeper of international law. To further his critique, he might consider the deficiencies of bilateral diplomatic relations, for instance, and deficiencies of customary international law itself.

The book certainly has its shortcomings, namely the sheer brazenness of its argument. But it is for a reason that this book is not intended for an academic readership, and it is successful in tempering some wide-eyed optimism in international law and the processes of international law making.

In 1933, Sir Hersch Lauterpact, Judge of the International Court of Justice from 1955 to 1960 and prominent international legal scholar, was prescient in arguing that the League of Nations covenant would fall short of established principles of non-violence by states, “the primary duty of law”, given the abundance of loopholes for belligerent states: “It is impossible in the scheme of things devised to secure the reign of law, to provide the machinery calculated to disregard the law”, he wrote in The Function of Law in the International Community.

Ross’s personal accounts and theoretical observations portray the UN – the descendant of the League of Nations – much as Lauterpacht described. Ross’s effort to offer bold observations and a general response to the problems of diplomacy in a book intended for a popular readership is admirable. In the wake of the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, his general argument will be convincing.

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