Diplomats for hire

21 June 2012

What do you do as a new or unrecognized country to make your voice heard at the global stage? Without diplomatic representation, until recently your interests were likely to be overlooked by the international community. These countries can now call Carne Ross, the founder of Independent Diplomat, an NGO that advises groups excluded from international diplomacy despite their stake in global politics. He has helped countries as diverse as Somaliland, Northern Cyprus, Kosovo and Western Sahara apprehend the intricacies of diplomacy to advance their interests as a non-state entity in a system dominated by nation states. This could signal the emergence of a new kind of diplomacy.

Until 2004, Ross built up an impressive career as a British diplomat. The testimony he gave to a Parliamentary inquiry into the war in Iraq, for which he had been the UK expert on the Security Council, was the moment he decided to resign. He realized that conventional diplomacy has become separated from reality, as diplomats like himself are expected to voice views that are sometimes hardly connected to those of the people they represent. Ross considers diplomacy as conducted by an unaccountable elite an outdated model for a world in which states are no longer the only actors engaged in international relations. Foreign Policy contributor Parag Khanna has dubbed this “mega-diplomacy” – NGOs, multinational corporations, online interconnectedness, terrorism and non-state military conflicts are all features of a new reality in which a much wider range of actors is active in the international arena.

In Ross’ view, the closed world of diplomacy needs to open up to this multitude of agents who are internationally involved. He therefore contends that the UN should make room for peoples, not states. “It is naïve to expect a body of nation states to put aside short-term interests. Instead, we must turn to peoples for the necessary action. That means us.” Today’s global challenges are unlikely to be solved by deadlocked negotiations between nation states. A prime example is climate change, for which Independent Diplomat advised the Marshall Islands in putting forward their concerns about the devastating consequences for this tiny nation. Nor is the secrecy that is characteristic of conventional diplomacy conducive to effective solutions. Ross sees Wikileaks as illustrative of a divide between what governments do in private and what they claim in public. He argues that “the world and its dramas are complicated and difficult, traits that do not suggest secretiveness and elitism as their solution, but instead the opposite.”

On the other hand, there are arguments why this new model of global politics may reinvigorate the role for traditional foreign policy officials. Scholars like Keohane and Nye have pointed out that the boom in information flows and the multiplicity of actors requires experts to interpret what this unstructured international environment means for citizens. Moreover, concerns about a democratic deficit may also justify state involvement. Unlike corporations, NGOs or individuals, at least in theory governments are democratically accountable for their actions. A final aspect of the current global economy that may ensure traditional diplomacy’s continued relevance is a blurring of the lines between states and markets. Ian Bremmer has made the argument that because in the new economic powerhouses the government is heavily involved and their state-owned enterprises have a global reach, interstate diplomacy is all the more crucial.

For these reasons, conventional diplomacy may not have become obsolete. Rather than replacing state officials, non-state groups and firms with an interest in global politics are likely to increasingly operate alongside them. As the nature of international relations evolves, public-private partnerships like the ones embodied by Independent Diplomat could become an important feature of a new kind of diplomacy.

Luuk Nijman

UCL - The School of Public Policy