Carne Ross (picture Curtis Brown literary and talent agency)

An interesting talk yesterday by Carne Ross, formerly of the Foreign Office and now acting as an “Independent Diplomat”. (You can read about him here)

He had an engaging and powerful case to make, and an engaging and powerful style with which to make it. After a 15 year career as a diplomat, he had resigned from the Foreign Office, uncomfortable with the decisions it was taking and the way in which it was taking them. His message yesterday was that diplomacy did not work and should be replaced by something else, but that he did not know yet what that replacement should be. In the meantime, he was working with otherwise unrepresented communities to give them a voice in the diplomatic circles of the world.

I remember a talk given by Murray Forsyth, then professor of federal studies at the University of Leicester, when he drew an analogy with university departments. There is the study of politics and government, which looks at the effect of rules, openness and elections, and there is the study of international relations, which is based on uncertainty, secrecy and force. Federalism, he said, aimed to make international relations more like politics and government. I think that’s right.

A good example of why this is needed lies in the sheer extent of international relations and diplomacy these days. All kinds of decisions which were formerly national decisions – subject to the principles of politics and government – have become international because of the extent of modern interdependence. Economic and environment issues, for example, lie in the hands of diplomats in the way they never did before. The use of the methods of international relations will, as a result, reduce the scope of politics and government within individual countries, creating a democratic deficit.

Earlier this year, I was able to look at this problem in the context of the EU sugar regime. This is a perfect example of politics and government being handled in as international relations. I had access to some of the secret documents that were circulated to the national governments and so was able to identify what difference civil servants were able to make at the private meetings, as opposed to the public meetings in which politicians participated. The impact was staggering.

Decisions by civil servants increased the overall cost of the sugar regime by more than 700 million euros per year and increased the annual compensation budget by 300 million euros. These are hardly small sums of money. 700 million euros is approximately the annual EU budget for Trans-European Networks, while 300 million euro is more than the EU spends on its environmental programmes. Civil servants decided this, not ministers. (You can read the paper here.)

What makes this even more absurd is that the traditional reason for secrecy – national security – was completely absent. This was a discussion about the price of sugar, which is a pretty harmless substance, and which will in the end be expressed in law. The whole idea that government decisions can be stitched up like this out of sight of parliamentarians and citizens is wrong. Carne Ross is right.

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There are a couple of interesting discussions of this point within the Federal Union archives.

The first is an extract from “The restoration of Europe”, written by Alfred H Fried in 1915. He writes that “Secrecy is not the only danger of diplomacy. It is dominated by a spirit which would do honor to mediaeval chivalry.” You can read the whole extract here.

And “The Federal idea” by H N Brailsford (published by Federal Union in 1940) has this wonderful description of the problem (which you can read here):

“For let no one suppose that power is dormant and inactive during an armed peace. It gives resonance to a diplomatist’s voice. No one listened to Mr Eden or Lord Halifax as they might listen to a master of dialectic, or a golden-tongued orator. If their words had weight, it was because battleships and bombing planes were ranged behind them, and the wealth that could buy more ships and planes. When Herr von Ribbentrop and Lord Halifax exchanged Notes, the result was hardly affected by the literary grace of their periods or the cogency of their logic. Two considerations counted: what armaments lay behind their logic, and had they the will to use these tools? That is always the hidden play behind diplomacy.”

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