In Conversation

CARNE ROSS with Nikolas Kozloff

An unusual political phenomenon, Carne Ross has gone from consummate insider to critic of the establishment in the span of just a few short years. As a diplomat in the British Foreign Office, he served as his country’s Iraq expert at the United Nations Security Council in the run-up to the invasion in 2003. He resigned from his post, however, when he observed that his government had failed to explore suitable alternatives to war. Moreover, he charged, intelligence on Iraq was “massaged” into terrifying claims about Saddam’s supposed W.M.D. program. The intelligence gathering, he added, “led to highly misleading statements about the U.K. assessment of the Iraqi threat that were, in their totality, lies.”

Ross now runs Independent Diplomat, a non-partisan organization whose staff is unaffiliated with any government or institution. Recently, Nikolas Kozloff caught up with the former British diplomat at his New York office to talk about Ross’s unlikely political journey as well as his new book The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2012), which examines why government institutions are not up to the task of solving major global problems and how people can create lasting and workable solutions to their everyday needs.

Nikolas Kozloff (Rail): In your book, you write that, as a young boy, you always wanted to be a diplomat. After a long vetting process, which you liken to a “ritual humiliation” and “hazing”, you got your wish and got a job as a diplomat. I found your choice of words here a bit striking—traditionally we think about hazing as being associated with the military but not with the civil service. Are you implying that there’s less difference here than people may think?

Carne Ross: I think both processes are about depersonalizing people and eradicating their sense of self so that they’re easier to fit into an institution. Military hazing tends to be more physical, but I’m talking about a process that was very personally intrusive and which forces and requires you to reveal an awful lot about yourself. I’m straight but I was living with a gay man, and the Foreign Office would ask me about my sexual preferences. They would ask, “Have you ever had gay sex?” I had to find out details relating to my ancestors such as my great-grandparents, some of whom had been killed at Auschwitz. They required me to find out these details, or so they claimed, so that the K.G.B. would not impersonate distant family members in order to compromise me. They found out all about my financial situation; they talked to my friends about how I behaved, how I was at college. One’s willingness to put up with this is in a way a kind of laying oneself open to them and humiliating oneself rather than retaining one’s own dignity and sovereignty. In this sense, it’s similar to military hazing, though obviously you’re not forced to do a hundred push-ups and run naked around the yard. It’s not like that, but in an insidious way it’s in some ways even worse because it’s a very personal revealing of the self in order to join the institution. Before you join the Foreign Office you think of yourself as the “I” and reflect to yourself that “I have these opinions.” Once you join the institution, however, you are encouraged to think of the “we” and the “we” is Britain.

Rail: Could you elaborate a bit on the psychology of the diplomat who inhabits an exclusive world that most of us never see?

Ross: In the discourse of diplomacy, one is accepted as speaking for the country. If I was talking to a Russian diplomat at the United Nations, he would understand that I was speaking for Britain, unless of course I explicitly said, “These are my personal views, and they are not to be taken as my government’s views.” When you are trained in diplomacy, you are encouraged to see things through a very subjective lens which is reflective of a small group of people, even though it’s claimed to be a broader, national view of the world. It’s extraordinary to me that the populace should have given such power to such a small group which is unaccountable. As a British diplomat, I was never held to account for what I did at all—ever.

Rail: What kinds of people worked with you at the Office, and how did peer pressure exert its subtle influence?

Ross: I worked with very nice, decent, sophisticated, and worldly people. To my unending shock and disillusionment, however, good people can do bad things, and I did bad things. Unfortunately, one of the things I realized was that it’s not enough to be nice and “clubbable,” as they would say in British English: that’s not sufficient safeguard against a government and institution doing wrong things. One of the reasons I felt comfortable doing what I later came to regard as a terrible thing—namely, the indiscriminate imposition of comprehensive sanctions on the Iraqi civilian population—was that my colleagues never questioned it any more than I did. And my colleagues were people who I liked, who I went out with, and who I respected.

Rail: So, Iraq was the “bad thing” you were referring to?

Ross: Yes. After the Iraq War and my own resignation, I was pitched into a profound sense of disillusionment with the institution I had believed in as well as my colleagues. One of the reasons I quit was very personal: After seeing my colleagues basically lie about war, which is, to me, about one of the worst possible things you can do, I felt that, quite literally, I could not go back to work with them. It felt very personal to me—it wasn’t a great decision of conscience or principle but rather a very personal and emotional reaction. Looking back on my own work, however, I found that I didn’t have much to be proud of either. In many ways, the sanctions on the Iraqi people were worse than the war because the economy was taken back decades and the health service deteriorated massively.

Rail: Resigning from the Office must have been a pretty wrenching experience as you had a promising career as well as many professional colleagues. Did you have reservations about how your life might change?

Ross: It was a very difficult and painful decision. I was very committed to being a diplomat and I thought that was what I would be doing for the rest of my working life. I had built a lot of my own self-esteem around being a diplomat, so I felt like I was stripped of my professional identity. It was also difficult to say to my colleagues that essentially they had lied. Some of my co-workers reacted with great hostility, but, in general, they were quite respectful.

Rail: The State Department is also a very exclusive club, though here in the U.S. we have the notion that society is somehow less elitist than Britain. In your own direct personal experience, what would you say are the similarities or differences between the political cultures within the Foreign Office and State Department?

Ross: Actually, I don’t think the State Department is as elitist as the Foreign Office, or at least the Foreign Office that I knew. However, I think the Office has changed a lot since I left. In some ways it has become more open and easier for people to progress from the lowest ranks to the highest. One of my good friends, for example, joined as a filing clerk and he’s now a senior ambassador in his mid-40s. That would not have happened 20 years ago: At that time, if you joined in the so-called “A stream,” you were basically guaranteed a senior position. The “A stream” was a highly selective group: in my year, 20 people from top universities were accepted out of 5,000 applicants. At that time, I had a girlfriend from Manchester from a kind of regular family, and she remarked to me that she would never have even contemplated applying to the Office because such a job was reserved for a certain kind of person. So, it was almost like a glorified system of self-selection. In the U.S., however, I don’t think it’s as bad, and I have the impression that the State Department is made up of a more eclectic mix of people. In some ways it’s a more open institution than the Office and more ready to consult. I know a lot of people don’t hold that view, but I have often found American diplomats to be more ready to admit other ideas than the British.

Rail: Recently, whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks published secret U.S. State Department correspondence in what would infamously come to be known as the “Cablegate” scandal. How would you assess the overall impact of the scandal upon the political culture of the State Department and the public at large?

Ross: I believe the implications are profound. I think the assumption that what you thought would remain secret has been removed. Ideally, my hope is that what people do in secret will be more aligned with what they do in public, and you won’t get this gross divergence as has been the case with U.S. policy in the Middle East. Take, for example, Yemen, where Washington says it supports human rights and democracy but then gets into bed with President Saleh who lies to his people about American bombing campaigns in his own country. Hopefully WikiLeaks will change this culture of diplomacy. More broadly, I must confess that I was disappointed with the public reaction to WikiLeaks which to me was pretty trivial. Even liberal commentators said, “It’s okay for the State Department to keep things hidden; there are things that governments must keep secret in order to function.” But those same commentators weren’t even aware of what those things were! I found it truly extraordinary that they would allow that privilege to government without knowing what officials were keeping from the public, particularly after the War on Terror which has gone so disastrously wrong, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, I found that reflex reaction from many in the media to be very distressing. There was this kind of innate conservatism; an innate reaction to protect the status quo. The telegrams themselves are incredibly revealing about U.S. foreign policy, but I rarely found people reading them or talking about the extraordinary details. Instead, people would either talk about the phenomenon of WikiLeaks or Julian Assange, or they’d talk about a few trivial cases of WikiLeaks such as Gaddafi’s voluptuous Bulgarian nurses.

Rail: In one secret cable, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked U.S. diplomats to investigate whether Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was taking any medications to help her “calm down.” One gets the impression that Clinton was in the business of collecting dodgy psychological information on foreign leaders for political advantage. How typical is this type of inquiry within diplomatic services, and isn’t it something one might expect more from the C.I.A. or other intelligence gathering?

Ross: In U.S. embassies, it’s no secret that there are other intelligence agencies operating there and not just the State Department. In my experience as a British diplomat, it was absolutely not the business of diplomats to collect that kind of intelligence—it was the purview of the spooks and spies who worked alongside us. So, I was a bit surprised to see this type of query in regular State Department cables.

Rail: According to WikiLeaks cables, the U.S. expressed the need to “neutralize, co-opt, or marginalize” a bloc of radical Latin American countries pressing for a more effective solution to climate change. I figured this type of correspondence would cause an outcry, but in the end nothing happened. I suppose people just feel that diplomats are jockeying for position and that this is what nation-states naturally do, even if it means playing a zero-sum game when it comes to the fate of the planet?

Ross: I’m afraid you’re right: a) I think people accept that “this is what diplomats do,” and states are allowed to behave in this frankly rather odious fashion, so we can’t expect any moral standards; and b) it comes as no surprise that the U.S. is probably the biggest obstacle to getting an international agreement on climate change.

Rail: What do you think the cumulative effect of these scandals will be upon the Arab world as well as Latin America, where ostensibly leftist governments are also playing their own double games? Could it be said that the disclosures act as “a great leveler”?

Ross: I rather agree with this in the sense that I found it a bit unfair that the U.S. was the only power that was subjected to ridicule and everyone was talking about Washington’s hypocrisy in particular. I personally would love to see a Chinese or Russian WikiLeaks. Or, a French WikiLeaks, since French foreign policy and hypocrisy in the Middle East is unparalleled.

Rail: You suggest that power can be challenged very fast in our interconnected system, much as a “wave” in a sports stadium can be started by just one person. However, revolution seems to be petering out in the Middle East, and it remains to be seen what will become of the activist scene here in the U.S. Perhaps the “leaderless revolution” has peaked, and we’re now seeing a retrenchment?

Ross: I would draw a distinction between the Arab Spring and Occupy. What I’m talking about is evolution rather than revolution, whereby people realize that governments are incapable of producing the outcomes that are really needed and individuals decide to take on more of the burden through their own actions. I’m not talking about the storming of the Bastille or the toppling of autocracy, but rather a gentle and gradual shift in power from top-down governments to the broader population. Consider Egypt: to be sure, it’s much better to avoid autocracies like Mubarak but I think the current government is not the right long-term model for the country. Moving from the Middle East to the U.S., I feel that Occupy is not an example of the “leaderless revolution” because up until now it has largely been a protest movement that is referring to a very traditional model of politics. Occupy is protesting that government should do a better job. Indeed, there are plenty of people in Occupy who believe that Washington should simply issue better legislation to control those nasty corporations. I don’t think that’s going to happen: I think those nasty corporations have a lot more power than a couple of thousand people marching down Broadway. For me, the correct form of revolution is to actually institute new actions to set up new systems which will replace the old.

More Articles by these Authors

Carne Ross

CARNE ROSS is the author of The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century (Blue Rider Press [2012]) and serves as the Executive Director of Independent Diplomat.

Nikolas Kozloff

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the founder of Revolutionary Handbook.