Urquhart defends diplomats — and the UN — yet again

Brian Urquhart – British former Under-Secretary General at the UN for ages, who came “on board” the Organization even before its actual founding – is still writing and thinking about his memorable experiences there.

Not everybody who works at the UN gets to have as much fun as Urquhart did. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of UN staff who, at any one time, are using their skills and making a difference in the world. The others are mostly marking time, and waiting for the next paycheck — and the best way to do that is to be quiet — and often, to do nothing.

Anyway, Urquhart has just published, in the New York Review of Books, a review of a new book by Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, who was posted at the UN, and who then worked for the UN in Kosovo.

The Urquhart review of Ross’ book is published here.

In the first two grafs, I think Urquhart takes issue with Ross’ descriptions for the wrong reasons, and misses the point. Later, he defends diplomacy using the exact same arguments that supporters give for their positive view of the UN: if it didn’t exist, where would we be? And, if it didn’t exist, it would have to be created.

Here are some excerpts from Urquhart’s review:
“To take one small instance, describing a coldhearted, hierarchical desert of diplomats and Secretariat members at the UN headquarters in New York, he writes that ‘to meet…an Under-Secretary of the UN, you must yourself enjoy an equivalent rank in diplomacy or politics…'” I strongly doubt this. [We think it’s true – Urquhart was always of ‘equivalent rank’ and so doesn’t know, really]
During the time of my mentor and predecessor, Ralph Bunche, and in the fourteen years that I was a UN undersecretary-general, we actively encouraged outsiders and junior officials to visit us, not least because they were much more stimulating and informative than most ambassadors or ministers. I know of subsequent under-secretaries who have done the same.

In the same paragraph Ross writes, ‘Like Versailles’ inner sanctum, the Secretary-General’s suite lies in the most remote and inaccessible part of the Secretariat building’. This is the purest flapdoodle. [It is true that the SG’s suite on the 38th floor is remote and inaccessible, but of course it bears no resemblance to Versailles, which the author doesn’t say in the first place] UN headquarters building bears no resemblance whatsoever to Versailles. The secretary-general’s office is on the thirty-eighth floor of a modern thirty-eight-story structure, and is accessible by no fewer than six elevators that also serve the rest of the building. It is true that the secretary-general’s inhumanly busy program makes scheduling appointments very tight, but that is hardly a personal choice of the secretary-general.

Ross’s attempt to describe the stereotypical ‘ambassador’ is the ironic climax of his indictment of his former profession:
His demeanour is friendly but grave. His expression says that he is a man to be taken seriously: he has much on his mind. He may frown but he will never grimace. He may raise his voice, but he will never shout. Measure is his mien. In all things, measure. The quintessential quality of these paladins of their profession is, apparently, ‘balance’, ‘not going too far’, and not transgressing the borders of the state system and approved ‘facts’. The ambassador must be a ‘realist’, skeptical of moral enthusiasm or strong measures; he must also appear to be dedicated, in principle at least, to international law and human rights.
Ross describes his ‘slow descent from illusion to disillusionment’. His final British posting was in 1997 to the British UN delegation in New York and at the end of it, in late 2003, he was lent to the UN team in Kosovo. During the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq he earned, he writes, a ‘Rottweiler-like reputation…as the most effective and aggressive defender of British-American Iraq policy, sanctions and all’.
The Security Council negotiations leading up to the US invasion of Iraq were the catalyst for Ross’s final disillusionment. He recalls the intensive discussions about the draconian sanctions imposed on Iraq in early 1991. There was a basic inability to agree on the facts of the case. Britain and the United States held continued sanctions to be essential for international security; France and Russia maintained that sanctions were causing unnecessary suffering …
Ross was in the group of mid-level diplomats appointed by the Security Council to work on this problem. With no Iraqi representatives present and no accurate sense of what was going on in Iraq, the group was reduced, in Ross’s words, to the ‘absurd spectacle of each side quoting supposedly impartial UN reports at one another’. ‘There is’, he writes, ‘something very wrong about sitting around a table in New York arguing about how many children are dying in Iraq and whose fault it was’. He does not, however, suggest a better method of resolving the conflicting political and humanitarian problems involved in sanctions … Ross increasingly felt that all of us were ‘failing in our responsibility under the UN charter to maximise security and minimise suffering’. [This wordking doesn’t appear anywhere in the UN Charter, and this sentence makes it sound as if diplomats, and UN officials, have taken the same Hypocratic oath as doctors.] ‘It is’, he writes, far too disconcerting a prospect for governments or the diplomats who represent them to analyse or talk about the world as it really is, one shaped and affected by multitudinous and complex forces, among which governments are but one group of many involved.
Can the UN Security Council, still largely controlled by the original five permanent members, be relied on to deal justly and expeditiously with really critical problems? On Iraq, and on many other questions, mutual trust, especially among the permanent members, tends to evaporate quickly. France and Russia, although they based their case on humanitarian grounds, also had strong economic motives for lifting the Iraq sanctions, and both soon concluded that the Bush administration would never allow that to happen.

Carne Ross left the Foreign Service in September 2004. His account of this event is surprisingly meager. David Kelly, a British biological warfare expert who had been advising the British mission in New York, had told a British journalist that there were professional misgivings about Prime Minister Tony Blair’s intelligence dossier on Iraq’s alleged WMDs—the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’. Confronted with an official investigation, Kelly committed suicide. Ross was ‘appalled and enraged’ by this tragedy. In June 2004, he submitted, from Kosovo, secret testimony to a British commission of inquiry into the use of intelligence on Iraq’s WMD: ‘I wrote down all that I thought about the war…. Once I had written it, I realised at last, after years of agonising, that I could no longer continue to work for the government’.

It is puzzling that someone who felt so strongly did not reach this conclusion in March 2003, when the UK enthusiastically joined the US in invading Iraq. [No it’s not, it happens all the time, and in the UN above all…] Ross sent the transcript of his testimony to the foreign secretary and the head of the Foreign Office; neither replied, and that, it seems, was that.

While working at the UN, Ross had been appalled by the disparity between the diplomatic resources of the rich and powerful countries—with their experienced officials and advisers, information, intelligence, and secure communications—and the hopelessly overstretched and inadequate resources of the poorer ones, particularly those, like Kosovo, which are trying to establish their claims to legitimacy through the UN. He also notes that groups who are ignored, or discriminated against, or cannot get a hearing often resort to violence. (The early treatment of the PLO, and its consequences, is an example of this tendency.) After leaving the British Foreign Service Ross set up a nonprofit advisory group, Independent Diplomat, to remedy this imbalance—’a diplomatic service for those who need it most’. The only qualifications for receiving this group’s assistance are respect for international law and human rights, and a democratic philosophy.

Ross obtained nongovernmental support for Independent Diplomat, although he was surprised to discover that large foundations, for whom human rights are a guiding principle, are skeptical of diplomats and question whether, driven by realpolitik to take inherently amoral positions on important questions, they do any good at all. Independent Diplomat’s initial clients are Somaliland, Kosovo, whose claim to national independence is currently blocked in the Security Council by Russia, and Polisario, the exiled independence movement of Morocco-occupied Western Sahara. …

Ross deplores the obsession of diplomats with secrecy, which, in his view, is mostly a way to preserve the mystique that gives them prestige and protects them from criticism. The argument that publicity will ruin ‘real diplomac'” is an old one …
Ross also deplores the statecentric, ‘realist’ state of mind of his former colleagues and the resulting amoral and misleading view of a world over which governments are, in fact, steadily losing control. He claims that this way of thinking emphasizes differences by forcing negotiations to be conducted ‘in terms of nation-states and anachronistic and invented identities’, which actually exacerbate conflict. An example was the debate on sanctions on Iraq in which diplomats seemed to have no hope of agreeing. However, the ‘control list’ of items prohibited for export to Iraq was so technically complex that experts had to be called in. To the diplomats’ amazement, the experts agreed quite easily on the list of what was potentially risky to export to Iraq.

Ross suggests rather ungraciously that embassies are still needed ‘to organise ministers’ visits and look after distressed travelers who lose their passports’. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine how the United Nations would tackle its very wide agenda without the diplomatic missions that, for all the failings that Carne Ross describes, make up a skilled, permanent working group in New York. It was also diplomats who recently achieved a vital agreement with North Korea and, earlier, with Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. Who else could have done it?

The villain of Ross’s polemic reemerges:
the unwarranted and unscrutinized power of unelected officials who deal—often badly—with ever more of our collective business. The only long-term answer is for elected representatives to take their place.
Again, how? And elected by whom? And are these putative elections, which will inevitably become politicized, likely to produce more able and public-spirited diplomats and international officials than a rigorous selection process conducted by responsible, nonpolitical, appointed senior officials? I very much doubt it. The longstanding principle that civil servants, national and international, are not elected by political bodies has decisively proved its importance. In my experience, the best diplomats already have a strong sense of global priorities, although that is not necessarily what their governments pay them for. Members of the UN Secretariat must have such a view [But that is not what they are paid for, either.] The leadership and independence of the secretary-general and the competence, discipline, and integrity of the Secretariat are vital to the functioning of the UN.
Diplomacy has a long and important history. Recently there was a sigh of relief around the world when the United States, after disastrous experiments with military confrontation, gave some sign that it was willing to return to diplomacy as a main instrument of foreign policy. Diplomacy and diplomats have often aroused suspicion, even ridicule, but they still serve an essential purpose. There is, at present, no obvious alternative…”

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