“Problems without Passports”
U.N. undersecretary general Shashi
Tharoor on the shared concerns of the global
interview by Michele Gouveia
|ON KOFI ANNAN:
I once compared him to an Indian yogi, because of the
still, calm center from which he reacts to the world
Shashi Tharoor is a busy man. After
graduating from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
with three degrees at
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
newsstories but I’ve long since stopped being able to use television
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,
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
self as an adult, and it was an extraordinary set of changes.
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.
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
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
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
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
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