By Sofia Karlsson | July 26, 2010
How do you make your voice heard in the international community if you are a marginalized country or political group? One option is to hire some help. The not-for-profit organization Independent Diplomat (ID), founded in 2005 by British ex-diplomat Carne Ross, aims to assist groups and governments that are cut out of the diplomatic processes that concern them—given that these parties fulfill the ethical criteria of commitment to democracy, human rights, and rule of law.
Independent Diplomat has taken on clients such as Kosovo, Somaliland, and Western Sahara in their efforts to become independent states. Independent Diplomat has also worked with low-lying island nations, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), to help them navigate the international climate change negotiations. Mr. Ross spoke with Policy Innovations about the changing nature of diplomacy and where ID fits in the global picture.
Diplomacy has been part of international relations since ancient times, facilitating the fundamental need to confer common interests and concerns between societies. Diplomacy tracked with the emergence of nations as sovereign political entities in the seventeenth century, and the diplomatic practices that have evolved since then were codified in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations [PDF], which regulates the immunity of diplomats and the diplomatic missions as they represent their nations' interests.
Fifty years later, nonstate actors have entered the arena of global affairs, challenging the professional diplomat as the sole negotiator in international politics. A range of different groups are increasingly involved in diplomatic processes, such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private companies, and foundations. Governments are increasingly reliant on NGOs, especially when it comes to carrying out humanitarian assistance and delivering aid programs. Private companies involve themselves in foreign policy as well, either to protect business interests or to facilitate an emerging economy's integration with the global market. Retired diplomats are hired to advise CEOs or to lead a company's international affairs division, which has expanded the corporate influence on the diplomatic system.
"I don't believe that governments run the world and I think it is becoming increasingly clear that their ability to control events is diminishing in a globalized world where more and more forces are inevitably out of their reach." said Ross. "I think we have to come to terms with that reality and develop new ways of understanding that."
Independent Diplomat occupies a specific niche among all these complexities. ID does not conduct conventional diplomacy on behalf of its clients but instead advises them on how to represent themselves. The clients then decide what to do with that advice. "I feel very strongly that ID should not be one of those NGOs marching around the world telling our clients what to do," said Ross. "We are advisers, not deciders."
Even public relations firms are involved in foreign lobbying, and Ross emphasizes that Independent Diplomat does not fit this mold. The Guardian recently reported that a New York PR firm represents Saif Gaddafi, son of Muammar Gaddafi, in an effort to change the world's perception of Libya. Ross considers this a waste of money. "I think it's a very great mistake to think that you can change the world's perception of a country by placing a flashy advertisement in the Economist," he said. "It was a huge mistake by the Bush administration to think that they could PR their way through the war on terror by explaining that America was a wonderful, open, and tolerant place, whilst busily making alliances with all kinds of repressive regimes around the world. What matters in international politics is what you do, not what you say, and we make that very clear to our clients."
Even though the importance of nonstate actors is rising in international politics, political legitimacy is still determined by the boundaries of nation-states, and ID's work is defined along these lines.
"Our definition of diplomatic processes is quite a traditional one and it tends to be international state-to-state processes that we are talking about. So a classic example would be that we would advise a nonstate actor involved in a dispute that is under discussion in the Security Council, on how to engage with the UN Security Council even though they are not a recognized state," said Ross.
ID advised the government of Kosovo on its intent to declare independence and on how the diplomatic process would work leading up to that. The process was dominated by the Contact Group, a group of countries with interests in decision-making in Kosovo and the Balkans, namely France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Independent Diplomat talked to the Contact Group and to the special envoy of the Security Council, Matti Artisaari, about how the negotiation process was going. They let the Kosovars know what the key points of consideration were and what sorts of messages they should deliver themselves.
The process led to Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008, though several states rejected the outcome. Serbia requested an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ ruled in favor of Kosovo on July 22, 2010, declaring Kosovo's independence legal according to international law. "I feel Kosovo had to become independent and that the question was whether it would do so peacefully or violently," said Ross. "I'm glad to say that it happened peacefully."
The obstacles that ID faces vary from case to case, but finding a way in for marginalized clients is often very challenging. "I had been a British diplomat and I thought that setting up an NGO to do diplomacy would be very difficult and that we would be really excluded by the people doing traditional diplomacy," said Ross. "But we have found that by and large the inhabitants of the traditional diplomatic system have accepted us quite broadly. They have been willing to talk to us and been quite open in explaining to us and our clients how processes work. Allowing our clients into those processes is another matter."
One of their clients, the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS), is recognized quite broadly as a legitimate actor in the future of Sudan, so getting them access has been less difficult. At the same time, GoSS is at a considerable disadvantage relative to the official government in Khartoum, which represents the north.
As a British diplomat, Mr. Ross was stationed at UN headquarters in New York and was responsible for defending and promoting the British sanctions policy against Iraq. In 2004, he resigned from the British Foreign Office after witnessing how evidence of Iraqi armament was exaggerated in the run-up to the war against Saddam Hussein. His book Independent Diplomat describes diplomats as an unaccountable elite and the UN as an undemocratic forum where powerful countries control policy-making. In the closing pages, Ross suggests that we are seeing the end of classic diplomacy and that effective foreign policy must act in concert with the private sector, civil society, and governments to stay relevant.
But if these outside agents are to be further involved in foreign policy, they have to be held to standards of accountability and transparency. Ross is sensitive to the problems of transferring power to other entities and says that just because an actor is nongovernmental does not mean it is always in the right: "I sometimes feel quite concerned at the allegiance of NGOs who turn up at international conferences demanding access on this or that and I wonder what their democratic legitimacy is."
Ross predicts that the more nongovernmental entities generate political impact, the greater the demand for democracy and accountability will become. The political sovereignty of nations will not cease to exist anytime soon, but the role of diplomat will mutate in the twenty-first century. Independent Diplomat's goal of giving diplomatic assistance on a not-for-profit basis fills a niche in international politics and may help us broaden our understanding of diplomacy in the context of globalization.
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