NEW YORK — When Carne Ross left the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2004, after testifying against his government in an inquiry into the Iraq war, there was no obvious way for a former diplomat to keep his hand in international diplomacy.
There was little space, in particular, for a man who had often been on the eccentric end of the British foreign service. Ross was reprimanded at one point by Tunisia for attempting to defuse a tense pre-Iraq War meeting on sanctions against Iraq by playing a Paul Weller record and prompting other diplomats to bring their own music. The stand against the Iraq war made Ross, now 46, a hero of the left who had thrown his own career and prospects to the wind, one who captured the imagination of the spy novelist John le Carré’s latest novel, whose diplomat-hero is “that most feared creature in our contemporary world: a solitary decider.”
“His courageous and solitary stand in the face of bullying and outright deceit by his masters in the Foreign Office was exemplary,” the author, whose work has for decades sought to explore the moral ambiguities of English and American power, told BuzzFeed.
But perhaps more surprising, his high-profile departure from the muted world of diplomacy also made him a new kind of diplomat. Ross, in a new world of diplomacy, then found a new way.
At 46, he now occupies a spacious office in New York’s Flatiron District. With his dark hair swept back and black rimmed glasses, he looks like he works at a tech startup, not at something rather less common: A diplomacy startup. After leaving the Foreign Office, Ross founded Independent Diplomat, which he calls the world’s first diplomatic advisory firm. He is perhaps the leading representative in the United States of stateless peoples and would-be states, and has created a new line of work in helping marginalized groups and semi-states learn how to conduct traditional diplomacy. It’s an organization built for an era that has left “the old certainties” behind, as The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins wrote in a column this week that contemplated both Edward Snowden’s domestic surveillance revelations and Le Carré’s novel, A Delicate Truth.
Ross’s new line of work, and his worldview — skeptical of state power and of American hegemony, but comfortable working with their institutions — has proven well-suited to a shifting geopolitical landscape. He’s a diplomat without portfolio in an era when hackers and militant groups vie with states for power, and a participant in a quixotic and ongoing Occupy Wall Street plan to reimagine the global economy. His style, too, is perhaps better suited to the new world than the old: Ross is, as a former colleague, British High Commissioner to Nigeria Andrew Lloyd, put it when recalling the ire his musical efforts provoked, “a bit more freethinking than your average pinstripe suit-type diplomat.”
Meanwhile Independent Diplomat has been, of all things, normalized, becoming a recognized cog in the diplomatic machine.
Indeed, Ross’s idea came at the right time, when governments and would-be governments of all sorts increasingly rely on the private sector to perform many of the tasks they can no longer, or never could, do themselves.
“We try to get legitimate representatives of people into the diplomatic discussions where their issues are being discussed. We only can help where there is real diplomacy going on,” Ross said during a May interview in Independent Diplomat’s airy office, where a map of the world covers one wall and a group of people worked quietly at an open-desk area. During the course of nearly three hours over a bottle of Fiji water, Ross laid out his vision for Independent Diplomat’s place in the world, as well as his own evolving one.
Ross has quietly emerged as the representative of key groups in strategically important regions, and now has a few real successes to point to, notably the struggle for South Sudanese independence from Sudan. That process depended heavily on groups like Independent Diplomat and other nongovernmental organizations and private firms. Ross helps people who seek a voice in the diplomatic discussions where their futures are being discussed, from the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara to the Syrian National Coalition. As a nonprofit and not a lobbying firm, the firm depends on the largesse of donors, including a number of charitable foundations and the governments of Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Finland, and Norway. George Soros is also a major donor.
The firm does charge its clients a fee so that it’s clear this isn’t just charity, Ross said. Ross’ team of 16 employees based in offices in New York, Juba, London, Brussels, and the Somaliland capital Hargeisa don’t see themselves as charity workers: “We don’t regard ourselves as table-banging advocates for our clients,” he said. “We’re former diplomats.”
Not everyone has easily understood the difference, though traditional diplomats often find Ross useful.
“It took me some time to understand what ID was and who Carne was and how it was distinguished from traditional lobbying,” said Cameron Hudson, a former State Department official who dealt with Ross when Ross was representing the South Sudanese. “Carne wasn’t lobbying for his clients per se. He was trying to help his clients better understand the international system they were operating in.”
“With regard to South Sudan and Sudan, he became a very useful back channel for me with the South Sudanese government,” Hudson said. “He could help echo concerns or amplify concerns or issues that Washington had to his clients.”
“I think he helped to save the South Sudanese from themselves on any number of occasions,” Hudson said. “Could he get them to do something? Occasionally. Prevent them from doing something? Yes.”
Independent Diplomat managed to get a South Sudanese delegation into the United Nations Security Council in 2010 to make their case.
“They were literally not invited to the diplomatic table,” Ross said. “When their stuff was being discussed, when the future of Sudan was being discussed, we got them invited. They got to speak at the diplomatic table where their issue was being decided.”
Ross acknowledges that he’s a niche player still. And though he professes a certain disdain for traditional diplomacy, telling me, “I’m diplomacy’s harshest critic because I was one,” he has to work within the system to get anything done.
“We live in a very rigid nation-state based system,” said a current State Department official who has known Ross for years and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Even with all my respect for Carne, I wonder academically how it’s possible for him to do the kind of work he does when the whole international system is based on interactions and agreements between nation states.”
“But Carne, to his credit, has been able to overcome some of that with his clients,” the diplomat said.
“We’re the only ones doing what we’re doing,” Ross said. “It makes it fun, but it makes it tricky because it’s never been done before.”
Ross was born in South London. His father was in finance and his mother is a retired teacher. His grandfather Alan S.C. Ross was a linguist famous to a certain generation of Britons who broke codes in World War II, invented the “U and non-U” theory of English, and claimed to speak 28 languages. Ross’s unusual first name is a family surname from generations past. He is a twin; his brother is an anesthesiologist in Southampton, England, and his sister is an editor at the Financial Times. Ross’s wife, Karmen, is a Croatian filmmaker whose documentary about rape during the war in Bosnia won two Emmys.
Ross went to the University of Exeter, and began his professional life working at a jobs program for East London’s poor. Soon after that, he entered the foreign service, and was posted temporarily to Norway and then to Bonn, Germany — also le Carré’s first posting as a spook with diplomatic cover in the 1960s.
“As John le Carré said, half the size of Chicago Cemetery and twice as dead,” Ross said of Bonn. “I was bored stiff and lonely as hell.”
After Bonn, Ross was called back to London in 1995 and made head of the Arab-Israel desk in the Foreign Office’s Near East/North Africa department, then speechwriter for the Foreign Secretary. He landed at the United Kingdom mission to the U.N. in late 1997, where his brief was mostly conflicts in the Middle East — most notably Iraq during the era in which Western powers were ratcheting up sanctions. It seems ironic now.
“I was doing exciting things,” Ross said. “I specialized in conflict. The latter part of my career I did Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya.”
But even as he developed a reputation as a tough negotiator, Ross was becoming more unusual, especially for the straitlaced world he was operating in. In 2001, Ross premiered an off-Broadway play, The Fox, which “follows a young peace-keeping British soldier returning from a barbaric ethnic war overseas and finding he has become disillusioned with society,” according to a write-up from that time in Playbill.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat to war advanced after 9/11. Ross was growing ever more disillusioned with the work.
“The secret element of diplomacy is that I never saw my colleagues more engaged than I saw in wartime,” Ross told me. “One of the things I came to feel as someone who went on to adopt a much more anarchist viewpoint was that the moment when government servants feel most needed and thus most kind of sure of their purpose in life is during wartime.”
Other people at the U.N. didn’t seem to suspect Ross of straying from the party line at all, though Lloyd says his eventual resignation “didn’t come as a complete shock.”
“Basically he was here in — when was Desert Fox? — what I remember of him was that it was hard to imagine him as someone who sort of had the future that he had in terms of leaving the foreign service,” said Colum Lynch, the Washington Post’s U.N. reporter who covered Ross during his tenure there.
“Carne was in the classic position of trying to make life as difficult as possible for the Iraqis,” Lynch said. “At that moment there was a big pushback on sanctions and the Brits were sort of on their own trying to keep them in place.” Lynch pointed to a specific instance when the British were trying to get the State Department to impose stricter regulations on oil pricing in the oil for food program: “In some ways, he was more aggressive in trying to clamp down on the Iraqis than even the Americans.”
Ross admits that he enjoyed the power and excitement of the job.
“During war you become the authority,” Ross said. “My main job with the U.K. mission was Afghanistan and Iraq, the two biggest issues, which made me feel very important. When I was at the U.N., I had TV crews running down corridors after me. I was a P-5 diplomat dealing with the biggest issues of the day.”
In 1998, Ross was acting as liaison to the Iraq weapons inspectors when the U.S. and the U.K. gave the Iraqis an ultimatum. Iraq blocked yet another inspection. The Americans prepared to send over bombers.
“And they actually launched bombers into the air when inspectors rang me up and said actually we’ve been let into the site,” Ross said. “My hands were shaking and I ran this telegram to London saying actually they’re cooperating, and the bombers were called back. It was really extraordinary. It makes my hair stand up even talking about it now.”
His personal life, meanwhile, was falling apart. “I drank a lot,” Ross said. “And I was very aggressive professionally. I liked destroying people.”
Ross took a sabbatical from 2002–2003 and taught at the New School, though he was still a member of the Foreign Office. He was posted to Kosovo in 2003. It would be his last posting. In 2004 he testified for the Butler Review, the British government’s inquiry into the intelligence which led to the invasion of Iraq. Ross’s testimony that he had not seen evidence of weapons of mass destruction during his tenure at the U.N. marked the end of his career, though he gave it in secret in an effort to keep his job, at least at first.
“At the time of my testimony, I was still in the British Foreign Office, and feared the professional consequences of testimony that was so critical of the government,” Ross wrote on his blog this past February. “But after transmitting the testimony to the inquiry, I decided to resign. I felt that I could no longer work with ministers and officials whom I knew to have lied.”
Ross still feels that no one responsible for the Iraq war was held accountable, including himself.
“I was not accountable for what I did,” he said. “I was involved with something that I now look back on with a considerable amount of regret, which is sanctions on Iraq. I was an intrinsic, absolutely heavily involved part of that policy.”
But though he was “radicalized” by the experience of resigning over the Iraq War, the Foreign Office itself was never dead to him. He would still be a diplomat if it hadn’t been for Iraq. He says he has a warm relationship with many of his former colleagues there, and a good working relationship with the U.S. State Department, though “when the U.S. is more hostile to our clients it’s not easy.” His last posting in Kosovo led to his first ever clients after he came up with the idea for Independent Diplomat. The Kosovars signed on with Independent Diplomat in 2004.
Over the next few years, Ross built up his client list while being based back in New York. The organization has grown to 16 employees, most of whom are former diplomats and consultants who stay more in the background. Colum Lynch’s impression of ID is that, “The people who do the regional or country work, you don’t know who they are. They act more like diplomats. It’s almost like a government.”
He doesn’t remember it, but I first encountered Ross at a meeting of Occupy Wall Street’s Alternative Banking working group in fall 2011, as a reporter for the Village Voice. A few dozen people were gathered in the offices of Independent Diplomat, Matthew Stoller, a blogger and former aide to the radical Florida Democrat Alan Grayson, and Cathy O’Neil, a former quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw. The crowd did not skew typically “Occupy.” There was a current Goldman Sachs employee there who had to remain anonymous. Ross led the discussion, which eventually broke into two groups with a focus on different aspects of financial reform.
I left the meeting impressed by how much everyone seemed to know about finance — a marked difference in baseline knowledge from most Occupy protesters — but frankly a bit bored, and didn’t realize until recently that Ross has still been holding these meetings at his office nearly two years later. His group, The Occupy Bank, is down to a handful of diehard members, including a commodities trader who spoke to BuzzFeed on the condition of anonymity.
“Carne is definitely a big picture guy,” the trader said. “He’s a ‘we think big or we don’t do it at all’ kind of guy.” Though Carne is the de facto leader of the group, it’s supposed to have the same kind of horizontal structure that all Occupy groups strive for, and the trader sometimes ribs him for his most recent book’s title: The Leaderless Revolution. The two men talk multiple times per week.
The trader estimated that there were about two dozen active members of the group. They’re focused on producing “a cooperative that will provide access to financial products” for sale to two markets: disadvantaged, “unbanked” people, and activist types who want to support a cause.
Ross says the finished product, the Occupy Money Cooperative, could be incorporated as soon as this week, followed by a “soft launch” complete with website and fundraising apparatus.
Ross’s politics don’t dovetail entirely with the larger Occupy community. Like most Occupy activists, he wants a direct democratic model for government, but he doesn’t think Occupy was it. The General Assembly, Occupy’s model of a deliberative body, was “not a direct democracy because it was so primitive, so vulnerable to disruption.” Occupy devolved into a debate between those who wanted to protest what society was offering, and those who wanted to construct better alternatives; a “fundamental schism,” Ross says. (He’s in the second camp).
In his diplomacy, Ross is also, in his understated way, following an ambitious and even radical vision. Ross says he has a strict criteria for taking clients — “We only help people committed to democracy and protection of human rights.” Ross acknowledges that it’s a difficult judgment to make, and Independent Diplomat will from time to time work with groups with a military bent or that may not fit the bill perfectly. The Polisario Front, for example, has been accused of human rights abuses in its struggle for independence from Morocco.
“We never helped armed groups,” Ross said. “We never did it. That was pragmatism on the part of Independent Diplomat. But I still feel to this day that the people who ought to be educated on the diplomatic process are people who are not using it.”
These lines — which side is the opporessor, which is the oppressed? — can be hard to draw. One Ross client who has drawn particular criticism is the pro-Russian political party of Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s pro-Russia political party, Georgian Dream, which has had loyalists of former Prime Minister Mikheil Saakashvili arrested and prosecuted since its election last fall. The arrests have drawn criticism from the State Department.
“[Ivanishvili] was democratically elected in free and fair elections,” Ross said. Ross said they “wanted to get a better grip on how the EU and the Council of Europe was thinking about Georgia” because Saakashvili “had very much dominated the diplomatic discussion around Georgia.”
Saakashili’s American friends don’t buy Ross’ argument.
“All I can really speak to is Georgia, but in that case these guys didn’t know who they were representing, or the money made it too good to check,” said Michael Goldfarb, a conservative operative who has worked on lobbying for the Saakashvili side. “Still, anyone who represents a bunch of dodgy proto-states like Northern Cyprus, South Sudan, Western Sahara and Somliland as nonprofit is probably making some profit.”
In April, the group took on the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces as a client. “The basis of our philosophy is legitimate representatives of the people need to be included in the diplomatic discussion. The coalition falls squarely within that definition,” Ross told Britain’s Independent newspaper in April. In our interview, he refused to go into detail about the Syrian conflict, saying it wouldn’t be proper for him to weigh in on American policy there because of his clients.
Sometimes Ross and his team approach clients, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Elias Jeyarajah, president of the US Tamil Political Action Committee, found out about Independent Diplomat through Edward Mortimer, an advisor to the Sri Lanka Campaign and former aide to Kofi Annan.
“He mentioned that it’s not easy to become their client,” Jeyarajah said on the phone with BuzzFeed. “They have some very strict criteria.”
Jeyarajah credits Independent Diplomat with helping get USTPAC’s agenda on the minds of powerful people and boosting its fundraising potential.
“If you just demand something, in the process you can actually not help your cause,” he said. “Whereas the approach that Carne takes, establishing contacts and having meetings and trying to win over the other party through interactions and meetings in itself is progress and continuous engagement.”
Ross advised USTPAC to make contact with other Tamil groups outside Sri Lanka and write joint letters to the U.N. secretary general, among other “targeted advice” about how to win over member countries of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The advice “brought a lot of dividends for our cause,” Jeyarajah said. “Before this Tamils had a bad rap and that feeling was there among diplomats, human rights groups, and NGOs too. So we were able to slowly transform that and show that not only the grievances and demands are reasonable but also we are a reasonable people too in our approach.” So far, USTPAC has played a role in getting the U.S. government to bring two resolutions to the U.N. calling for accountability for a 2009 massacre of Tamils by the Sri Lanka army.
“He and his team at ID attracted our attention six years ago and Polisario decided to work with him and his team win charge of Western Sahara,” Ahmed Boukari, the Polisario Front’s representative at the U.N., said of Ross in an email to BuzzFeed. The Front was one of Ross’ first clients.
“We trust them and they know also that Western Sahara case has offered ID great opportunities to measure their capabilities and to tune their diplomatic skills and performance,” Boukari said. “The issue of Western Sahara is one his priority and it has achieved some tangible progress thanks to Carne and his team at ID.”
Ross says that the word is spreading, with more marginalized groups approaching him than ever.
Having a hand in so many obscure conflicts around the globe makes Ross sound like something out of a novel, and in fact he is.
Ross has written two nonfiction books, which led him to his fateful encounter with le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell). The two men have the same literary agent, Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown. Le Carré, 81, needed advice from a current or recent diplomat for his upcoming book, A Delicate Truth, the story of an ambitious young British diplomat who sacrifices his career to get the truth out about a clandestine military operation gone wrong.
They met and le Carré quizzed Ross about his life. All the while, he took notes. Eventually Ross realized they were notes about his manner of speaking and general demeanor, not just what he was saying. Ross denies that le Carré based any part of the main character, Toby Bell, on him, though he says he sees some traits of people he worked with in the characters in the novel.
Le Carré would send Ross drafts of the book and Ross would give notes about “the stuff I know about, how people talk, how people behave, things in the Foreign Office. But eventually I started commenting on the whole thing.” The drafts, Ross said, “were all really good but they got better and better and better.”
Le Carré, for his part, has helped Ross, too — and not just with intel secrets and plot devices.
“I had lunch with him in north London,” Ross said. “He leaned over the table and said, under no circumstances should you call your book The Cosmopolitan Anarchist. I rang my publisher, they were furious, they’d just had a big design meeting for the cover. I said, ‘I’m sorry; John le Carré’s just told me to change it.’”
Ross sees le Carré, who chronicled the Cold War as a skeptic of American power and Western imperialism, as something of a kindred spirit. “He’s an independent thinker,” Ross said. “His politics — I’m glad to say we saw eye to eye on a lot of things.”
Le Carré feels similarly about Ross.
“Carne Ross was an inspiration for my novel about individual truth versus institutional cover-up,” he said in a note passed on to me by his agent. “His courageous and solitary stand in the face of bullying and outright deceit by his masters in the Foreign Office was exemplary. Nor shall I ever forget the generosity with which he guided me through the thickets of British officialdom at its unlovely worst. Carne is that rare combination: a brave and original thinker and a man whose actions speak for his convictions.”