March Books 1) Independent Diplomat & 2) Diplomacy Lessons

1) Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite, by Carne Ross (, .com)
2) Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower, by John Brady Kiesling (, .com)

These two books have a certain amount in common. Both authors resigned from their diplomatic careers (Ross from the British Foreign Office, Kiesling from the US State Department) in protest at the Iraq war. Both books offer a blow-by-blow account of how the respective writers came to their decisions. And both also offer some wider systemic thoughts about what went wrong, allowing grotesque and murderous blunders like Iraq to happen. Neither, interestingly, subscribes to any deeper conspiracy theory about why Iraq happened. Both are pretty scathing about the usefulness of intelligence agencies.

Kiesling was not intimately involved with the Iraq issue. He writes instead of years of getting to know Greece and trying to interpret it to Washington (and vice versa) with excursions also into Armenia, Romania, Morocco and India. His chapter on terrorism – specifically the Greek 17 November group, and how the US security agencies hindered Greek law enforcement from catching them – is a classic, and I’m glad to hear from the author that he’s expanding that topic into another book. Most readers, however, will concentrate on his vivd descriptions of senior colleagues, and will boggle slightly at the occasional blocks of blacked out text, most of which appears to have been about the CIA.

Ross was much closer to the Iraq issue, having been posted to the British mission to the UN where he handled negotiations on sanctions against Baghdad in the years leading up to the war. He writes now of his shame in colluding with the misery of the Iraqi people, but also of much else about diplomacy: the mind-set, the procedural rituals, the peculiar training process, and the systematic failure of international negotiators to listen to the people whose fate is settled around the conference table. He has now founded a new organisation whose goal is precisely to help the marginalised actors in international politics to be heard in the diplomatic world, and in the interests of full disclosure I should state that I work for it, and him.

Kiesling is deeply committed to the idea that US diplomacy still can be a force for good in the world, and his resignation was a protest at the squandering of America’s moral capital, in which he felt he could no longer collude. Ross takes the view that the system itself is broken: traditional diplomacy is caught up with procedure and bureaucracy, and the real stuff is increasingly happening elsewhere. I find myself closer to Ross’s views (which is just as well since I work for him, not Kiesling); in particular, it ties in well with the concept of epistemic communities which I find fascinating.

But I think anyone wanting to understand better what features of the international system made the Iraq war possible will find much of interest in both of these books.

One thought on “March Books 1) Independent Diplomat & 2) Diplomacy Lessons

  1. It’s a relief to know that someone smarter and more successful than me can make mistakes like that too. 🙂

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