Shashi Tharoor, 50, is a critically acclaimed author and the head of public relations for the United Nations. He is now a candidate to succeed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan when his term ends in December. In an interview, Tharoor discusses his chances of becoming the next chief of the international body and the steps he will take to reform the UN if he is appointed.
SPIEGEL: There is widespread agreement that the successor to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who retires in December, should be Asian. India has now nominated you as its candidate, but there are also competitors from Sri Lanka, South Korea and Thailand.
Tharoor: As China’s foreign minister says, there are 3 billion Asians, surely we can find one who can do this job. My advantage is that I am an insider. International organizations are so complex that outsiders would have an enormously steep learning curve to surmount. Many successful UN heads in recent years have been insiders — Mohammed ElBaradei at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Lee Jong-Wook Lee at the World Health Organization (who died in May) were insiders who rose to lead their agencies and did very well.
SPIEGEL: Many politicians have criticized the United Nations as being a bureaucratic monster. How badly are reforms needed?
Tharoor: Mahatma Gandhi put it best: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” What is true for individuals is also true for institutions. If the UN wants to change the world, we must change too. The question of Security Council reform has been on the “operating table” since 1992, with the member states gathered around it like doctors. They’ve agreed on the diagnosis but not on the prescription. But the UN has not failed: On the contrary, it has achieved enough to make it worthwhile for the world to invest both money and political will in the world body.
SPIEGEL: What would you try to tackle first if you become the next secretary general?
Tharoor: The role played by member states in micro-managing the day-to-day work of the organization, for one. It would help if those who are entrusted with the job of running the UN were allowed to do so with a free hand, and if they were judged by the results they deliver. The financial constraints we face is another issue. We are completely dependent on member states to pay their dues — and the vast majority do so late or partially and often with a whole lot of conditions attached.
SPIEGEL: Germany has the largest economy of the European Union, but its role in international affairs — especially at the UN – has been largely muted. Where would you like to see greater German participation?
Tharoor: I disagree with that characterization. Germany was one of the most effective elected members of the Security Council, and the performance of Ambassador Günther Pleuger and his team reflected the clout the country wields at the UN. That said, I would like to see Germany more active on development issues, in political debates and in upholding the international legal system. I would also love to see more German “blue helmets” (peacekeeping troops) serving under the UN flag.
SPIEGEL: You have been praised as one of the most successful recent administrators at the UN. Will your successes be enough to help you tackle complex international conflicts — such as those in Iraq, Sudan and Sri Lanka — and in doing so finally realize the very purpose for which the international body was created?
Tharoor: Conflict management requires cooperation and the detailed, minute assessment of all sides of a conflict along with the member states. UN diplomacy is not a one-man show. I can only pledge to do my best, to listen attentively, and to bring the most out of others — colleagues and governments. I have no magic wand to wave … but I will ask all the right questions in my effort to find the answers.
SPIEGEL: You’re a fulltime diplomat but also a celebrated writer. Are you still able to balance the two roles?
Tharoor: I find it increasingly hard to juggle the two. First the evenings vanished, then the weekends. I began a novel three Christmases ago, but I haven’t touched it since. It’s not just time that you need, but also a space inside your head to create an alternative universe — one populated with characters and issues and situations that are as real to you as the ones you encounter in real life. If I win, I will have to stop all personal writing for the duration of my tenure. If I lose, I will have all the time in the world to write.
Interview conducted by Padma Rao in New Delhi.