“Backstabbing for Beginners” by Michael Soussan

AUTHOR: Michael Soussan

AUTHOR: Michael Soussan

Michael Soussan worked at the United Nations, who blew the whistle about his experience working in the Food for Oil Programme. His account is damning to the systematic corruption of international relations, and that is why we highly recommend you read “Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy” by Michael Soussan, for the purposes of Chapter 2 of the Diplomatic Planner,

His book reads well like a coming of age memoir and provides deep insights into how one’s ethics may be compromised by work that should have been humbling. Like many young graduates, Michael didn’t know where his fit in the world was. After a short stint at a law firm working alongside government clients, Soussan knew very quickly that his personal interests lay in the work of international relations. He had his eye on the United Nations and he wanted to make his mark in the world. What he didn’t have at the time was a Masters degree that stopped him from policy-orientated positions, but when applying to administrative positions at the UN headquarters in New York, he was always told that he was too overqualified. After multiple rejections, he managed to intern for a large news agency that gave him inside access to some of the most notable world leaders working with the UN.

As he reveals his origin story, Soussan talks in chilling detail about horrifying levels of corruption, backstabbing, under-the-table negotiations, and clear lack of empathy that takes place between governments and departmental heads. As a young rookie, Soussan worked at the UN’s Food for Oil Programme under the leadership of Kofi Annan which became one of the largest humanitarian operation in the organisation’s history. Just as its title says, the Oil for Food programme was created to offer humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people in return for oil. But there was never a discussion about what constituted a “humanitarian need” so there was a lot of space for maneuverer in terms of how money was spent.

Internally, there was a lot of heavy criticism that the sanctions that the UN imposed on Iraq only left people hungrier and worse off and the programme would not have been necessary without such sanction. The programme, as Soussan described, was a contradiction that worked for and against the imposed sanction and every UN Head of Department was after the money the programme offered. As a result, the programme created a lot of in-fighting as nearly all UN agencies had an interest in delivering a part of the programme.

Soussan goes into detail about the immorality of the programme. The Iraqi people received less than 50 cents in humanitarian food for every $1 of oil sold to countries. Much of the food they received was not fit for human consumption. Chickpeas had stones in them, the milk powder would cause diarrhea and staple food lacked key nutritional ingredients that left many children malnourished. In addition to that, there was a major conflict of interest with Kofi Annan’s son, Koji, working for an oil company during the programme that meant potentially earning millions of dollars.  

What the book glaringly revealed is understanding the differences between theory and practice of international diplomacy. For example, a senior UN official that Soussan mentions in the book is seen to know the UN Charter inside out, quoting from its by-laws when negotiations became tricky. While the UN Charter and its many programmes and resolutions are air-tight on paper, at a grassroots level, implementing programmes and upholding resolutions on the ground is a logistical nightmare that creates a multiple layer of corruption, deception and rule-breaking. We also learn that diplomats spend quite a lot of time reading between the lines of other diplomat’s lies. Policies are read for public consumption but in practice, implementation could have meant anything. Glimmers of truth appear behind the scenes during coffee breaks and cocktail parties where the real work of diplomacy takes place. Soussan states that diplomats were justified in lying, so long as they maintained peace. But who were diplomats lying on behalf of? Member states pretended they were working in unity but competing interests were at work. So long as there was consensus of peace, the clogs would continue to turn.

When working in delivering this programme, Soussan becomes aware that Saddam Hussein was extracting illegal kickbacks which led him to collide with the organisation’s leadership. When calling for an independent investigation, it became clear to the author just how wide the level of corruption went.

The UN Oil for Food programme is a good example of how an air-tight proposal can go wrong on the ground. When a government refuses to cooperate with UN officials or present data with no background checks, a programme can crumble and money can fall into the wrong hands. In a world where there is no truth but consensus, taking initiative is highly risky and paranoia makes practical sense. Diplomats have their backs open and have no one they can truly trust. Any bureaucrat wanting to work successful in the UN has to work hard to keep the 15 Security Council ambassadors happy. The UN Oil for Food programme was not about what the Iraqi people needed, but more about what the Security Council will allow through. The Secretariat was designed to facilitate diplomacy, but not to manage it. With greater responsibility came lesser chance to speak freely. When meetings are called in times of indecision, the youngest employee is picked to summarise the meeting and ensure that responsibility does not get passed over to more senior members, making accountability diluted to the point of evaporation. Corrupt individuals and companies were out in the open, and protocol was in full operation to minimise the risk of lies.

From the eyes of the author, international relations moves people from being a young idealist to an old realist, a dichotomy that is often in the centre of international relations. There is a clash between two world views and many feel stabbed in the back either on the level of their ideas, or on the level of their raw personal interest. The key to surviving is to be true to oneself. And that is certainly the Grassroot Diplomat way.

“Backstabbing for Beginners” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development toolkit for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practical worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register