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Carne Ross: An independent diplomat

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After 15 years in the British diplomatic corps, Carne Ross became a "freelance diplomat," running a bold nonprofit that gives small, developing and yet-unrecognized nations a voice in international relations. At the BIF-5 conference, he calls for a new kind of diplomacy that gives voice to small countries, that works with changing boundaries and that welcomes innovation.

- Diplomat
Carne Ross is the founder of Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit that offers freelance diplomatic representation to small, developing and yet-unrecognized nations in the complex world of international negotiations. Full bio

My story is a little bit about war.
00:16
It's about disillusionment.
00:19
It's about death.
00:21
And it's about rediscovering
00:23
idealism
00:25
in all of that wreckage.
00:27
And perhaps also, there's a lesson
00:29
about how to deal with
00:31
our screwed-up, fragmenting
00:33
and dangerous world of the 21st century.
00:36
I don't believe in straightforward narratives.
00:40
I don't believe in a life or history
00:43
written as decision "A" led to consequence "B"
00:45
led to consequence "C" --
00:48
these neat narratives that we're presented with,
00:50
and that perhaps we encourage in each other.
00:52
I believe in randomness,
00:55
and one of the reasons I believe that
00:57
is because me becoming a diplomat was random.
00:59
I'm colorblind.
01:02
I was born unable to see most colors.
01:04
This is why I wear gray and black most of the time,
01:06
and I have to take my wife with me
01:09
to chose clothes.
01:11
And I'd always wanted to be a fighter pilot when I was a boy.
01:14
I loved watching planes barrel over
01:17
our holiday home in the countryside.
01:19
And it was my boyhood dream to be a fighter pilot.
01:22
And I did the tests in the Royal Air Force to become a pilot,
01:25
and sure enough, I failed.
01:28
I couldn't see all the blinking different lights,
01:30
and I can't distinguish color.
01:32
So I had to choose another career,
01:34
and this was in fact relatively easy for me,
01:36
because I had an abiding passion all the way through my childhood,
01:39
which was international relations.
01:42
As a child,
01:44
I read the newspaper thoroughly.
01:46
I was fascinated by the Cold War,
01:49
by the INF negotiations
01:51
over intermediate-range nuclear missiles,
01:53
the proxy war between the Soviet Union and the U.S.
01:56
in Angola or Afghanistan.
01:59
These things really interested me.
02:02
And so I decided quite at an early age
02:05
I wanted to be a diplomat.
02:07
And I, one day, I announced this to my parents --
02:09
and my father denies this story to this day --
02:12
I said, "Daddy, I want to be a diplomat."
02:14
And he turned to me, and he said,
02:16
"Carne, you have to be very clever to be a diplomat."
02:18
(Laughter)
02:20
And my ambition was sealed.
02:22
In 1989,
02:25
I entered the British Foreign Service.
02:27
That year, 5,000 people applied to become a diplomat,
02:30
and 20 of us succeeded.
02:32
And as those numbers suggest,
02:35
I was inducted into an elite
02:38
and fascinating and exhilarating world.
02:41
Being a diplomat, then and now,
02:45
is an incredible job, and I loved every minute of it --
02:47
I enjoyed the status of it.
02:50
I bought myself a nice suit and wore leather-soled shoes
02:52
and reveled in
02:55
this amazing access I had to world events.
02:57
I traveled to the Gaza Strip.
03:00
I headed the Middle East Peace Process section
03:02
in the British Foreign Ministry.
03:04
I became a speechwriter
03:06
for the British Foreign Secretary.
03:08
I met Yasser Arafat.
03:10
I negotiated
03:12
with Saddam's diplomats at the U.N.
03:14
Later, I traveled to Kabul
03:17
and served in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.
03:19
And I would travel
03:22
in a C-130 transport
03:24
and go and visit warlords
03:27
in mountain hideaways
03:29
and negotiate with them
03:31
about how we were going to eradicate Al Qaeda from Afghanistan,
03:33
surrounded by my Special Forces escort,
03:36
who, themselves, had to have an escort of a platoon of Royal Marines,
03:39
because it was so dangerous.
03:42
And that was exciting -- that was fun.
03:44
It was really interesting.
03:47
And it's a great cadre of people,
03:49
incredibly close-knit community of people.
03:51
And the pinnacle of my career, as it turned out,
03:54
was when I was posted to New York.
03:57
I'd already served in Germany, Norway,
04:00
various other places,
04:02
but I was posted to New York
04:04
to serve on the U.N. Security Council for the British delegation.
04:06
And my responsibility was the Middle East,
04:09
which was my specialty.
04:11
And there, I dealt with things
04:13
like the Middle East peace process,
04:15
the Lockerbie issue --
04:17
we can talk about that later, if you wish --
04:19
but above all, my responsibility was Iraq
04:22
and its weapons of mass destruction
04:24
and the sanctions we placed on Iraq
04:26
to oblige it to disarm itself of these weapons.
04:28
I was the chief British negotiator
04:32
on the subject,
04:34
and I was steeped in the issue.
04:36
And anyway,
04:39
my tour -- it was kind of a very exciting time.
04:42
I mean it was very dramatic diplomacy.
04:45
We went through several wars
04:48
during my time in New York.
04:50
I negotiated for my country
04:53
the resolution in the Security Council
04:55
of the 12th of September 2001
04:57
condemning the attacks of the day before,
04:59
which were, of course, deeply present to us
05:02
actually living in New York at the time.
05:04
So it was kind of the best of time, worst of times
05:07
kind of experience.
05:09
I lived the high-life.
05:11
Although I worked very long hours,
05:13
I lived in a penthouse in Union Square.
05:15
I was a single British diplomat in New York City;
05:17
you can imagine what that might have meant.
05:20
(Laughter)
05:22
I had a good time.
05:25
But in 2002,
05:27
when my tour came to an end,
05:29
I decided I wasn't going to go back
05:32
to the job that was waiting for me in London.
05:35
I decided to take a sabbatical,
05:37
in fact, at the New School, Bruce.
05:39
In some inchoate, inarticulate way
05:42
I realized that there was something wrong
05:45
with my work, with me.
05:47
I was exhausted,
05:49
and I was also disillusioned
05:51
in a way I couldn't quite put my finger on.
05:53
And I decided to take some time out from work.
05:55
The Foreign Office was very generous.
05:58
You could take these special unpaid leave, as they called them,
06:00
and yet remain part of the diplomatic service, but not actually do any work.
06:02
It was nice.
06:05
And eventually, I decided
06:07
to take a secondment to join the U.N. in Kosovo,
06:09
which was then under U.N. administration.
06:14
And two things happened in Kosovo,
06:17
which kind of, again,
06:19
shows the randomness of life,
06:21
because these things turned out to be
06:23
two of the pivots of my life
06:25
and helped to deliver me to the next stage.
06:27
But they were random things.
06:30
One was that, in the summer of 2004,
06:32
the British government, somewhat reluctantly,
06:35
decided to have an official inquiry
06:37
into the use of intelligence on WMD
06:39
in the run up to the Iraq War,
06:41
a very limited subject.
06:44
And I testified to that inquiry in secret.
06:46
I had been steeped in the intelligence on Iraq
06:49
and its WMD,
06:52
and my testimony to the inquiry said three things:
06:54
that the government exaggerated the intelligence,
06:57
which was very clear in all the years I'd read it.
07:00
And indeed, our own internal assessment was very clear
07:03
that Iraq's WMD
07:06
did not pose a threat to its neighbors, let alone to us.
07:08
Secondly, the government had ignored all available alternatives to war,
07:11
which in some ways
07:14
was a more discreditable thing still.
07:16
The third reason, I won't go into.
07:19
But anyway, I gave that testimony,
07:21
and that presented me with a crisis.
07:23
What was I going to do?
07:25
This testimony was deeply critical of my colleagues,
07:27
of my ministers, who had, in my view
07:30
had perpetrated a war on a falsehood.
07:32
And so I was in crisis.
07:35
And this wasn't a pretty thing.
07:37
I moaned about it, I hesitated,
07:39
I went on and on and on to my long-suffering wife,
07:41
and eventually I decided to resign from the British Foreign Service.
07:45
I felt -- there's a scene in the Al Pacino movie "The Insider," which you may know,
07:48
where he goes back to CBS
07:52
after they've let him down over the tobacco guy,
07:54
and he goes, "You know, I just can't do this anymore. Something's broken."
07:57
And it was like that for me. I love that movie.
08:00
I felt just something's broken.
08:02
I can't actually sit with my foreign minister
08:04
or my prime minister again with a smile on my face
08:06
and do what I used to do gladly for them.
08:08
So took a running leap
08:11
and jumped over the edge of a cliff.
08:14
And it was a very, very uncomfortable, unpleasant feeling.
08:17
And I started to fall.
08:21
And today, that fall hasn't stopped;
08:23
I'm still falling.
08:26
But, in a way, I've got used to the sensation of it.
08:28
And in a way, I kind of like
08:31
the sensation of it a lot better
08:33
than I like actually standing on top of the cliff,
08:35
wondering what to do.
08:37
A second thing happened in Kosovo,
08:39
which kind of -- I need a quick gulp of water, forgive me.
08:41
A second thing happened in Kosovo,
08:46
which kind of delivered the answer,
08:48
which I couldn't really answer,
08:50
which is, "What do I do with my life?"
08:53
I love diplomacy --
08:57
I have no career --
08:59
I expected my entire life to be a diplomat, to be serving my country.
09:01
I wanted to be an ambassador,
09:04
and my mentors, my heroes,
09:06
people who got to the top of my profession,
09:08
and here I was throwing it all away.
09:10
A lot of my friends were still in it.
09:12
My pension was in it.
09:14
And I gave it up.
09:16
And what was I going to do?
09:18
And that year, in Kosovo,
09:20
this terrible, terrible thing happened, which I saw.
09:22
In March 2004, there were terrible riots
09:25
all over the province -- as it then was -- of Kosovo.
09:27
18 people were killed.
09:30
It was anarchy.
09:32
And it's a very horrible thing to see anarchy,
09:34
to know that the police and the military --
09:36
there were lots of military troops there --
09:38
actually can't stop that rampaging mob
09:40
who's coming down the street.
09:42
And the only way that rampaging mob coming down the street will stop
09:44
is when they decide to stop
09:47
and when they've had enough burning and killing.
09:49
And that is not a very nice feeling to see, and I saw it.
09:51
And I went through it. I went through those mobs.
09:54
And with my Albanian friends, we tried to stop it, but we failed.
09:57
And that riot taught me something,
10:00
which isn't immediately obvious and it's kind of a complicated story.
10:03
But one of the reasons that riot took place --
10:06
those riots, which went on for several days, took place --
10:08
was because the Kosovo people
10:10
were disenfranchised from their own future.
10:12
There were diplomatic negotiations about the future of Kosovo
10:16
going on then,
10:19
and the Kosovo government, let alone the Kosovo people,
10:21
were not actually
10:23
participating in those talks.
10:25
There was this whole fancy diplomatic system,
10:27
this negotiation process about the future of Kosovo,
10:30
and the Kosovars weren't part of it.
10:33
And funnily enough, they were frustrated about that.
10:35
Those riots were part of the manifestation of that frustration.
10:38
It wasn't the only reason,
10:41
and life is not simple, one reason narratives.
10:43
It was a complicated thing,
10:45
and I'm not pretending it was more simple than it was.
10:47
But that was one of the reasons.
10:49
And that kind of gave me the inspiration --
10:51
or rather to be precise,
10:53
it gave my wife the inspiration.
10:55
She said, "Why don't you advise the Kosovars?
10:57
Why don't you advise their government on their diplomacy?"
11:00
And the Kosovars were not allowed a diplomatic service.
11:03
They were not allowed diplomats.
11:05
They were not allowed a foreign office
11:07
to help them deal with this immensely complicated process,
11:09
which became known as the Final Status Process of Kosovo.
11:12
And so that was the idea.
11:15
That was the origin of the thing that became Independent Diplomat,
11:17
the world's first diplomatic advisory group
11:19
and a non-profit to boot.
11:22
And it began when I flew back from London
11:24
after my time at the U.N. in Kosovo.
11:27
I flew back and had dinner with the Kosovo prime minister and said to him,
11:30
"Look, I'm proposing that I come and advise you on the diplomacy.
11:33
I know this stuff. It's what I do. Why don't I come and help you?"
11:36
And he raised his glass of raki to me and said,
11:39
"Yes, Carne. Come."
11:41
And I came to Kosovo
11:43
and advised the Kosovo government.
11:45
Independent Diplomat ended up advising three successive Kosovo prime ministers
11:47
and the multi-party negotiation team of Kosovo.
11:50
And Kosovo became independent.
11:53
Independent Diplomat is now established
11:56
in five diplomatic centers around the world,
11:59
and we're advising seven or eight
12:01
different countries, or political groups,
12:03
depending on how you wish to define them --
12:06
and I'm not big on definitions.
12:08
We're advising the Northern Cypriots on how to reunify their island.
12:10
We're advising the Burmese opposition,
12:13
the government of Southern Sudan,
12:15
which -- you heard it here first --
12:17
is going to be a new country within the next few years.
12:19
We're advising the Polisario Front of the Western Sahara,
12:23
who are fighting to get their country back
12:26
from Moroccan occupation
12:28
after 34 years of dispossession.
12:30
We're advising various island states in the climate change negotiations,
12:33
which is suppose to culminate
12:36
in Copenhagen.
12:38
There's a bit of randomness here too
12:41
because, when I was beginning Independent Diplomat,
12:43
I went to a party in the House of Lords,
12:45
which is a ridiculous place,
12:47
but I was holding my drink like this, and I bumped into
12:49
this guy who was standing behind me.
12:51
And we started talking, and he said --
12:53
I told him what I was doing,
12:55
and I told him rather grandly
12:57
I was going to establish Independent Diplomat in New York.
12:59
At that time there was just me --
13:01
and me and my wife were moving back to New York.
13:03
And he said, "Why don't you see my colleagues in New York?"
13:05
And it turned out
13:08
he worked for an innovation company called ?What If!,
13:10
which some of you have probably heard of.
13:12
And one thing led to another,
13:14
and I ended up having a desk
13:16
in ?What If! in New York,
13:18
when I started Independent Diplomat.
13:20
And watching ?What If!
13:22
develop new flavors of chewing gum for Wrigley
13:24
or new flavors for Coke
13:26
actually helped me innovate
13:28
new strategies for the Kosovars
13:30
and for the Saharawis of the Western Sahara.
13:32
And I began to realize that there are different ways of doing diplomacy --
13:35
that diplomacy, like business,
13:38
is a business of solving problems,
13:40
and yet the word innovation doesn't exist in diplomacy;
13:42
it's all zero sum games and realpolitik
13:45
and ancient institutions that have been there for generations
13:48
and do things the same way they've always done things.
13:51
And Independent Diplomat, today,
13:54
tries to incorporate some of the things I learned at ?What If!.
13:56
We all sit in one office and shout at each other across the office.
13:59
We all work on little laptops and try to move desks to change the way we think.
14:02
And we use naive experts
14:05
who may know nothing about the countries we're dealing with,
14:07
but may know something about something else
14:10
to try to inject new thinking
14:12
into the problems
14:14
that we try to address for our clients.
14:16
It's not easy, because our clients, by definition,
14:18
are having a difficult time, diplomatically.
14:20
There are, I don't know,
14:25
some lessons from all of this,
14:27
personal and political --
14:30
and in a way, they're the same thing.
14:32
The personal one
14:35
is falling off a cliff
14:37
is actually a good thing, and I recommend it.
14:39
And it's a good thing to do at least once in your life
14:43
just to tear everything up and jump.
14:45
The second thing is a bigger lesson about the world today.
14:49
Independent Diplomat is part of a trend
14:52
which is emerging and evident across the world,
14:55
which is that the world is fragmenting.
14:58
States mean less than they used to,
15:01
and the power of the state is declining.
15:04
That means the power of others things is rising.
15:06
Those other things are called non-state actors.
15:08
They may be corporations,
15:10
they may be mafiosi, they may be nice NGOs,
15:12
they may anything,
15:15
any number of things.
15:17
We are living in a more complicated and fragmented world.
15:19
If governments are less able
15:22
to affect the problems
15:24
that affect us in the world,
15:26
then that means, who is left to deal with them,
15:29
who has to take greater responsibility to deal with them?
15:32
Us.
15:34
If they can't do it, who's left to deal with it?
15:36
We have no choice but to embrace that reality.
15:39
What this means is
15:42
it's no longer good enough
15:44
to say that international relations, or global affairs,
15:47
or chaos in Somalia,
15:50
or what's going on in Burma is none of your business,
15:52
and that you can leave it to governments to get on with.
15:55
I can connect any one of you
15:58
by six degrees of separation
16:00
to the Al-Shabaab militia in Somalia.
16:02
Ask me how later, particularly if you eat fish, interestingly enough,
16:05
but that connection is there.
16:09
We are all intimately connected.
16:11
And this isn't just Tom Friedman,
16:13
it's actually provable in case after case after case.
16:15
What that means is, instead of asking your politicians to do things,
16:18
you have to look to yourself to do things.
16:21
And Independent Diplomat is a kind of example of this
16:24
in a sort of loose way.
16:26
There aren't neat examples, but one example is this:
16:28
the way the world is changing
16:31
is embodied in what's going on at the place I used to work --
16:33
the U.N. Security Council.
16:35
The U.N. was established in 1945.
16:37
Its charter is basically designed
16:40
to stop conflicts between states --
16:42
interstate conflict.
16:44
Today, 80 percent of the agenda
16:46
of the U.N. Security Council
16:48
is about conflicts within states,
16:50
involving non-state parties --
16:52
guerillas, separatists,
16:54
terrorists, if you want to call them that,
16:56
people who are not normal governments, who are not normal states.
16:58
That is the state of the world today.
17:01
When I realized this,
17:04
and when I look back on my time at the Security Council
17:06
and what happened with the Kosovars,
17:09
and I realize that often
17:11
the people who were most directly affected
17:13
by what we were doing in the Security Council
17:15
weren't actually there, weren't actually invited
17:17
to give their views to the Security Council,
17:19
I thought, this is wrong.
17:21
Something's got to be done about this.
17:23
So I started off in a traditional mode.
17:25
Me and my colleagues at Independent Diplomat
17:28
went around the U.N. Security Council.
17:30
We went around 70 U.N. member states --
17:32
the Kazaks, the Ethiopians, the Israelis --
17:34
you name them, we went to see them --
17:36
the secretary general, all of them,
17:38
and said, "This is all wrong.
17:40
This is terrible that you don't consult these people who are actually affected.
17:42
You've got to institutionalize a system
17:44
where you actually invite the Kosovars
17:46
to come and tell you what they think.
17:48
This will allow you to tell me -- you can tell them what you think.
17:50
It'll be great. You can have an exchange.
17:52
You can actually incorporate these people's views into your decisions,
17:54
which means your decisions will be more effective and durable."
17:57
Super-logical, you would think.
18:02
I mean, incredibly logical. So obvious, anybody could get it.
18:04
And of course, everybody got it. Everybody went, "Yes, of course, you're absolutely right.
18:06
Come back to us
18:09
in maybe six months."
18:11
And of course, nothing happened -- nobody did anything.
18:13
The Security Council does its business
18:16
in exactly the same way today
18:18
that it did X number of years ago,
18:20
when I was there 10 years ago.
18:23
So we looked at that observation
18:26
of basically failure
18:28
and thought, what can we do about it.
18:30
And I thought, I'm buggered
18:32
if I'm going to spend the rest of my life
18:34
lobbying for these crummy governments
18:36
to do what needs to be done.
18:38
So what we're going to do
18:40
is we're actually going to set up these meetings ourselves.
18:42
So now, Independent Diplomat
18:44
is in the process of setting up meetings
18:46
between the U.N. Security Council
18:48
and the parties to the disputes
18:50
that are on the agenda of the Security Council.
18:52
So we will be bringing
18:55
Darfuri rebel groups,
18:57
the Northern Cypriots and the Southern Cypriots,
19:00
rebels from Aceh,
19:04
and awful long laundry list
19:07
of chaotic conflicts around the world.
19:09
And we will be trying to bring the parties to New York
19:12
to sit down in a quiet room
19:15
in a private setting with no press
19:17
and actually explain what they want
19:19
to the members of the U. N. Security Council,
19:21
and for the members of the U.N. Security Council
19:23
to explain to them what they want.
19:25
So there's actually a conversation,
19:27
which has never before happened.
19:29
And of course, describing all this,
19:31
any of you who know politics will think this is incredibly difficult,
19:34
and I entirely agree with you.
19:37
The chances of failure are very high,
19:39
but it certainly won't happen
19:42
if we don't try to make it happen.
19:44
And my politics has changed fundamentally
19:47
from when I was a diplomat to what I am today,
19:50
and I think that outputs is what matters, not process,
19:52
not technology, frankly, so much either.
19:55
Preach technology
19:58
to all the Twittering members of all the Iranian demonstrations
20:00
who are now in political prison in Tehran,
20:03
where Ahmadinejad remains in power.
20:06
Technology has not delivered political change in Iran.
20:08
You've got to look at the outputs, and you got to say to yourself,
20:12
"What can I do to produce that particular output?"
20:15
That is the politics of the 21st century,
20:17
and in a way, Independent Diplomat
20:20
embodies that fragmentation, that change,
20:22
that is happening to all of us.
20:25
That's my story. Thanks.
20:29

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About the speaker:

Carne Ross - Diplomat
Carne Ross is the founder of Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit that offers freelance diplomatic representation to small, developing and yet-unrecognized nations in the complex world of international negotiations.

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Carne Ross was a member of the British diplomat corps for a decade and a half -- until a crisis of faith in the system drove him to go freelance. With his nonprofit, Independent Diplomat, he and a team advise small and developing nations without a diplomatic corps, as well as unrecognized nations that would otherwise lack a voice in negotiations on their own futures. His group helped advise the Kosovars in their quest for recognition as a nation, and with Croatia on its application to join the EU. They're now working with Southern Sudan as it approaches a vote to separate (a vote that, on Sept. 8, 2010, US Secretary of State Clinton called "inevitable").

As Ross said to Time magazine, when it profiled him in a 2008 story called "Innovators/Peacemakers": "Our work is based on the belief that everybody has a right to some say in the resolution of their issues." He's the author of the 2007 book Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite.

Read BIF's in-depth interview and feature on Carne Ross , by Christine Flanagan >>

More profile about the speaker
Carne Ross | Speaker | TED.com