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Summer 2003

“Problems without Passports”
U.N. undersecretary general Shashi Tharoor on the shared concerns of the global community.
interview by Michele Gouveia

I once compared him to an Indian yogi, because of the still, calm center from which he reacts to the world around him.

Shashi Tharoor is a busy man. After graduating from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with three degrees at the young age of 22, he joined the United Nations (U.N.), where he has worked tirelessly for the past 25 years. He has risen quickly through the ranks of the organization to his current position as undersecretary general for communications and public information, a job that is high in both profile and stress. In charge of informing the public about the U.N.—not always an easy task—he also oversees an international staff of 750. And if that weren’t enough to keep him busy, Tharoor spends his precious free time writing books. Lots of them. He is the author of eight titles, both fiction and nonfiction, all about his native India. His latest, a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, is due out next month. His books have won critical acclaim, including a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and one title, Show Business, has been made into a film. In 1998, he was named “Global Leader of Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum. Tharoor spoke with editor Michele Gouveia from his office in New York.

What facet of your job is the most challenging?

There are two unrelated areas that are both challenging. The first is getting the
message out about the U.N. to a public that is not always interested, persuading journalists, editors, the gatekeepers of the media to put our stories out there. It’s much easier to get our voice heard when the U.N. becomes center stage, as happened with the debates in the Security Council over Iraq.

And the second is the challenge of actually managing an information department in a large, international organization of 191 member states which, in effect, make our policies, oversee what we do, and control our budgets. Governments have very different views about the value of information in today’s world, and, of course, strong views about how much money they’re prepared to spend on the information business.

After your 25 years at the U.N., is there anything that still surprises you about your job?
I think the one thing that surprises me pleasantly is the extent to which people at the U.N.—and I’m referring now to the staff of the United Nations—so quickly learn to look beyond their own nationality, their own particular country’s perspectives or interests, to truly think in terms of the world as a whole. When you first come here, you are fairly conscious of your national background. Indeed, at the time of recruitment for the regular jobs—career positions at the U.N. headquarters, and so on—nationality actually matters: there are quotas, and people from “over-represented” countries can’t get hired. Once you’re hired, however, you’re all collectively serving a common cause, and people become individuals serving this larger institution. It’s rapidly forgotten whether somebody you’re working with is an Egyptian or an Estonian or an Ecuadorian. You just think of him as the website guy or the chap who’s the expert on AIDS.

During your time at the U.N., you have witnessed many horrific situations—the Vietnamese boat crisis, the struggle in Bosnia. How are you able to keep everything in perspective?
I’m not sure I’ve always been able to keep things in perspective. There are moments in my career when I would say, in all fairness, I’ve been completely consumed, and certainly the whole Yugoslav experience was such a period, when I was working 16-hour days, seven days a week, for months on end without a break. That’s when you don’t really allow yourself to develop the luxury of detachment. It’s something that one has to learn. Very often, of course, the thing to do is try to delegate, periodically, and give yourself some weekends, holidays, or simply learn to shut down and find a space within yourself—and that can be very difficult if you’re dealing with intense and horrific situations.

For myself, I’ve always had another source of escape to keep me sane and that’s been my writing. That didn’t apply during the Bosnian experience, when there wasn’t any time to write, but otherwise one of the ways in which I both recharge my batteries and keep my mind fresh is to retreat to a computer. Particularly on weekends, or sometimes at night, I just enter a different world that has nothing to do with my work. At the U.N., I really don’t work on India at all, but in my writing, I’ve written about nothing but India, so I’ve got two totally different worlds and I can use one as an escape from the other.

For many people, writing books is a full-time job in and of itself. Do you ever sleep?
I don’t sleep enough, and I have to admit that I do cut out a lot of things in my life that might otherwise give me pleasure. I tend to spend a lot of my weekends and my leave days writing, or in the case of my nonfiction, researching my writing, so I devote an awful lot of my non–U.N. time to doing things that most people would not consider a rest. I’m not out there windsurfing or hiking, or for that matter, watching television. I hardly ever watch television, which is slightly embarrassing for someone in my job, because a lot of the work that we’re doing requires keeping abreast of what’s going on in all media. I occasionally make a stab at it! I have a TV in my office for breaking newsstories but I’ve long since stopped being able to use television for leisure.

I see myself as a human being with a number of different reactions to the world, some of which manifest themselves in my work and some of which manifest themselves in my writing, so I couldn’t really shut down one or the other without a part of my psyche withering on the vine.

What do you think are the most common misperceptions, especially in America, about India?
I think the biggest problem is ignorance, so that it’s not so much misperception as no perception. For a long time, many people have had very little knowledge about India, and even though India is another democracy, and has been so for the last 50 years, the U.S. seems to have had very little consciousness of it. Whatever consciousness there is was shaped, to some degree, through British eyes—movies like Lives of the Bengal Lancers, Gunga Din, and The Jungle Book, which represent very much a British colonial perspective on India rather than an Indian perspective, and that’s something which I think could do with correction. I will say this has been changing during my own experience in the States because the number of Indian immigrants to the U.S. has grown exponentially. Now there are more than two million Americans of Indian origin, and this has made more Americans aware of Indian people and their culture. For example, when I was a graduate student at Fletcher, there was only one Indian restaurant I was aware of in New England, and now there must be hundreds. So there’s been a transformation, making Americans more conscious than ever before of India.

The second thing is the success of Indian culture, particularly Indian film, music, literature, and even fashion, reaching Americans. People are a little more aware of India through the works of fine writers such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Of course, the Bollywood movies have helped as well. But as I’ve written, the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural. Some of the clichés about India are clichés because they’re true. They’re grounded in reality—clichés about poverty, heat and dust, if you like, clichés about the situation of women. The problem with this perception is that those clichés are sometimes taken as the whole truth, whereas, in fact, they’re only a very small part of the truth. They’re true, but there’s a lot more truth about India still waiting to be found out. Anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true!

You have worked very closely with Secretary General Kofi Annan for some time now. What is it like working with him, and how would you describe him?

I think he is an astonishing man to work with. I’ve now worked very closely with him for 11 years—I’ve known him for longer than that—and first of all, he is a terrific boss, and that’s something that all of us value. Somebody who you feel values what you have to contribute, trusts you to contribute, gives you the autonomy and the scope of action that you need to do a good job, and backs you when you’re wrong, which is something that very few bosses systematically do. And the second is that he, himself, is such a remarkable human being. I feel that I’m learning from him all the time. He is extraordinarily gifted, and he has a rare human touch. I once joked, when he started getting a string of honorary doctorates, that he already had a Ph.D. in people. He manages to treat people of all ranks—whether they’re kings, queens, or prime ministers, or security guards and secretaries—in exactly the same way. That’s remarkable to watch.

He also manages to treat all situations with a tremendous inner strength, so that neither pressure nor pleasure gets to him excessively. He’s a person who’s deeply anchored in himself. I once compared him to an Indian yogi, because of the still, calm center from which he reacts to the world around him.

Many pro- and anti-war factions were disappointed with the U.N. stance on
Iraq before the war began. What is the U.N. doing to regain their confidence?

We are very conscious that we have had problems on both sides of this argument. In fact, there was a recent Pew poll conducted in 20 countries and we discovered that we had lost credibility in the U.S. because we didn’t support America on the war, and we lost credibility in the 19 other countries because we couldn’t prevent the U.S. from going to war, so it looks like we ended up having disappointed people on both sides of the debate. That is always, of course, extremely upsetting to many of us in this organization, because as Kofi Annan often reminds us, the charter of the United Nations begins with the words “We, the Peoples,” and we mustn’t let down the peoples of the world. We are here to serve them. But, having said that, how can we regain their confidence?

One of the key things we’re trying to do, first of all, is to ride out the storm, and to try to be effective on the ground in Iraq—to be sure that we’re trying to make a real difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. We’ve continued to do our humanitarian work on the ground, even if it doesn’t get reported. We all know that the coalition has won the war. Our job is to help ensure that the Iraqi people win the peace. And if that happens, and that happens with strong U.N. intervention, we are hopeful that people on both sides will recognize the value of the U.N. This is happening to some degree. Already we’ve seen many more voices raised in the U.S. Congress, as well as in public opinion and the press in the U.S. about the need to give the U.N. more of a role in Iraq. But the tragic bombing on August 19 that took so many of our most valued colleagues from us has made us conscious that we can’t make the impact we want to unless the security situation improves. We want to live up to the ideals for which they gave their lives—but we’ve got to be able to work in conditions of safety.

For many Americans, the U.N. is an organization that deals with troubles far from these shores that don’t deal directly with American issues. How is the U.N.’s work relevant to their lives?
There are many answers to that, and I’ll give you two. First, the big-picture issues, what we might call the “problems without passports,” to use Kofi Annan’s phrase, which cross all frontiers uninvited—problems of terrorism, of war and armed conflict, of drug abuse, of money laundering, of AIDS. We saw this recently, for example, with the U.N. World Health Organization’s work in stopping the SARS epidemic, because if SARS wasn’t tackled through international cooperation at its source, it would have spread around the world. Americans aren’t kept safe just by local police forces and the U.S. Army. They’re also kept safe by the efforts of U.N. organizations to control drug flows, by the U.N. Security Council resolutions on terrorism. Americans’ security, in other words, is as much in the hands of efforts that take place elsewhere in the world as it is a result of what’s more directly visible right here in this country. As somebody once said about water pollution, we all live downstream. Problems anywhere in the world affect us here.

But then there are what one might call the small-picture items—the ways in which the U.N. is helping Americans in their daily lives. For example, you’ve probably taken an international flight. The next time you fly, think of the U.N., because it’s the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization that makes international travel possible, that maintains, for example, global standards of everything from the ways in which ground crews maintain and service aircraft to the standards that pilots have to attain. In fact, it’s a U.N. rule that all pilots and air traffic controllers anywhere in the world have to speak a common language—English. Imagine what would happen if you had an American airline flying to say, Thailand, if you didn’t have that U.N. rule. You should think of the U.N. the next time you turn on a radio or mail a letter or buy a foreign product or visit a tourist site, because U.N. agencies make all those things possible.

You were the youngest person—22 at the time—to graduate with a doctorate from Fletcher. What was it like when you came to Tufts?
It was an astonishing experience, and if the Tufts Observer has good archives, you’ll find an article by me in 1975 called “From New Delhi to Jay’s Deli,” which gives you a longer answer to the question you just asked, and certainly fresher than it is now, 28 years later. But it was an amazing change for me. I came from a developing country to the most developed country on Earth at the age of 19, when, of course, one is just beginning to find one’s self as an adult, and it was an extraordinary set of changes.

First of all, the moment I got my fellowship from Fletcher I was earning more than my dad, once you converted the dollars to rupees, and what he was earning was enough to support a family of five in India, in what Indians might consider style. I had sticker-shock from everything, from the price of a haircut to the number of cars in the students’ parking lot.

Then there was the diversity of the Fletcher student body—100 students from 33 countries. I had had very few opportunities to interact with foreigners. Growing up in India in those days, I was part of a society whose diversity was internal. We didn’t have many foreigners in our school systems or in college. But coming here and dealing with people of every perspective, every part of the world, every accent and nationality was extraordinarily interesting.

I was a bit of a fool in the sense that I didn’t do enough to enjoy life outside the campus. Early on, I got into this habit of working too hard, and so I had finished my M.A. in one year, my M.A.L.D. in two, and managed to finish my Ph.D. requirements while doing my M.A.L.D. It was nuts. I turned in my 650-page thesis, which I had written in ten months of 18-hour days, defended it on a Friday, got on a plane Saturday, arrived in Geneva Sunday, and began work at the U.N. on Monday. So I’m still due that first post–Ph.D. holiday that everybody takes.

What did you learn at Fletcher that helped prepare you the most for your work at the U.N.?
As I mentioned before, the diverse backgrounds of the students helped me to appreciate what it’s like to function in an international environment. Even before I formally joined an international organization, I enjoyed the experience of making common cause with everyone.

Second, the intellectual quality of the professors, the classes, the high standards that were expected to be maintained, that was very important. Fletcher taught me to research, analyze, synthesize—to think about world problems in an organized fashion.

Third, some of the things I did outside the classroom. As I said before, I didn’t do very much outside Fletcher, but inside I was very active. I co-founded the Fletcher Forum, which I’m pleased to see is still going strong 27 years later. I was the first chief of its editorial board. We conceived it as a student publication, but it’s now a highly respected journal with eminent outside contributors. It was a terrific experience. It helped me, too, in leading a small team to produce concrete results, which is the sort of skill that’s always useful in an organization like the U.N.

Was there one particular professor you remember best?
I remember several with a lot of affection and regard. My faculty advisor, Alan Henrikson, was a friend as well as a very demanding and rigorous intellect. I enjoyed his subjects, did a lot of courses with him, but he would always hold me to the highest standards and that was very striking: he gave me the toughest exam in my Ph.D. oral, whereas the other professors, including one I hadn’t got along with, gave me a distinction. Alan always expected more of me than perhaps I had allowed myself to think I could do.

John Roche was another professor I remember with great fondness. He passed away, sadly. He had a number of great qualities, a tremendous Irish passion for politics and political convictions so that often seminars with him were as much conversations and arguments as they were exercises in pedagogy. But that passion was infused with a terrific wit. Some of John Roche’s great one-liners from my classroom 28 years ago are still fresh in my memory, and I must say I’ve frequently been tempted to plagiarize them.I also think fondly of my thesis adviser, H. Field Haviland, the kind Allan Cole, and many colorful characters on the faculty.

Turning back to the U.N., we talked about the situation with the war in Iraq. Other than Iraq, what are the top priorities for the U.N. right now?
Right now Liberia is very much on our minds. There’s a horror going on there that can easily be stopped and, as you know, Kofi Annan has been working with Colin Powell to try to get the U.S. first to support a West African force and then to have Americans follow to help stabilize the situation. That remains of great importance.

Second, we’re concerned about the Middle East, the efforts of the Quartet, of which the U.N. is a key member, to promote the roadmap to peace, to ensure that both parties work to end the horrors of the last couple of years, and to bring us to a situation where we can really work to fulfill the vision of two states living side by side in peace and prosperity with viable borders. That’s something we are determined to work toward, and that’s always an important issue for us.

And if I were to mention one more, just going beyond the issue of war, it would be the tragic combination of AIDS, drought, famine, and poverty in parts of Africa, which frankly threaten far more human lives than Iraq ever did. And to me that’s something which the world simply cannot afford to forget, and we at the U.N. are very much at the forefront of trying to deal with the multiple causes of that suffering and to bring them to an end.

What advice would you give to students who aspire to go into international diplomacy?
That is a tough one, because there’s never really been a one-size-fits-all approach. I would say the most important thing is to keep an open mind, both to learning about the world and to the kinds of situations you’re likely to deal with and confront in your work. Stay open to different points of view, open and always conscious about the fact that there’s more than one side to every question—open to finding creative solutions to the unpredictable dilemmas and problems that will be thrust upon you.

International diplomacy also needs people with “Fletcher skills”—the capacity to analyze and synthesize great numbers of sources, to come up with solid recommendations, to have judgment that is not easily swayed by prejudice or passion. It also requires patience, because a lot of diplomacy involves grunge work, the accumulation of small advances and not necessarily spectacular breakthroughs every time. But you’ve got to care about the world, because if you care about the world and you’re open to it, there’s almost no better profession in world affairs than serving one of the organizations of the U.N.