Lunch with the Financial Times

Article first published in The Financial Times by Emily Stokes on 1 August 2009.

I was thinking we should do questions first and chat later,” says Rory Stewart, 36 and director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School. I ask if the distinction is absolutely necessary; we are, after all, settling down for lunch, not preparing for a seminar.

“There might”, he says, “be a holistic theory that there’s no real distinction between interview and personal chat, just like there’s a theory that there’s no distinction between development, state-building and counter-insurgency, but I like to see things in categories.” He pauses to gauge whether I’m still following: “It’s like my belief that counter-terrorism is completely different from development.”

It is perhaps not surprising Stewart has no time for small talk. He has walked 6,000 miles across Asia; written a bestselling travel book at 28, and last year was chosen as one of Esquire magazine’s 75 most influential people of the 21st century.

Upon accepting the position at Harvard, he bought a huge house in Cambridge, where he now lives alone, filling it with furniture from his family home in the Scottish Highlands – evidence, perhaps, that he had renounced the life of an adventurer and charity director in Asia to settle down.

The restaurant where we meet is certainly sedate. Harvest specialises in New England cuisine (stews and seafood). Jazz plays in the background, and the napkins are shaped into concertinas. Stewart greets me with a toothy smile, sits down and, after a brief tutorial on the difference between counter-terrorism and development, opens a menu. He has, he says, had clam chowder for breakfast, and, undaunted by the prospect of yet more soupy seafood, orders mussels, followed by bouillabaisse. “Oh yes, I’m very New England,” he says.

Stewart has a detached way of speaking, in perfect paragraphs, without hesitation. He once told a former colleague that he added “um”s and “er”s to his speech at school because he was scaring the other children. You can tell when he is excited by a topic because his speech seems less scripted, and he surprises me by becoming more animated when I ask him about whether he feels at home in Cambridge – even though he answers my question by talking about Afghanistan: “There, I wake up looking at a mud courtyard with peacocks prancing on the grass; I go down to the old city…”

In 2005, with funding from Prince Charles, Stewart set up Turquoise Mountain, a charity to stimulate regeneration in Kabul by teaching traditional crafts to locals, and now from Cambridge directs a team of 350 employees. He returns frequently.

“You feel in Afghanistan that every part of you is being tested,” he says. “Your management, your mind, your ability to speak and articulate your ideas, your practical skills, your alertness … Whereas here,” – he gestures to Harvard Square with his napkin – “it stands or falls on the quality of your writing, your interest in teaching young people and, at the Kennedy School, your ability to reflect on and shape policy through a research centre. And it’s the last that’s worrying me the most; I’m not convinced it can be done.”

I had been going to ask Stewart about whether he’s as settled at Harvard as he looks – but there’s no need. He interrogates himself. He wants to know how someone best places himself to make a difference. Should you work from within the system or from outside it? Abroad or at home? In other words, the issue to be tackled over starters is: what should Rory Stewart do next?

Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, he has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s administration, including Hillary Clinton, and is a member of Richard Holbrooke’s special committee for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”

Stewart has always learnt by doing. Born in Hong Kong in 1973 to Brian Stewart, a diplomat, and Sally, an academic, he was raised in Malaysia, and his childhood memories of camping with his father are straight from Boys’ Own – “We’d make bamboo rafts and see tigers, and take bacon and egg sandwiches in our backpacks … ”

After Eton, he spent a year as an infantry officer in the Black Watch before going to Balliol, Oxford, where he read modern history, politics, philosophy and economics. Graduating in 1995, he joined the Foreign Office, where he was fast-tracked, becoming a second secretary in Jakarta two years later. In 2000 he surprised everyone he knew by taking an 18-month sabbatical to go on a 6,000-mile walk across Asia.

Today, when asked why, he is vague but talks a lot about how walking makes him feel “fresher, stronger, smarter, more in tune with the world”. He was prevented from entering Afghanistan by the Taliban but returned to Herat after a detour through India and Pakistan, by which time the US had invaded. He recorded this section of his journey – undertaken on foot in the middle of winter – in The Places in Between (2001), which won the Ondaatje prize and was called a “flat-out masterpiece” by the New York Times.

The trip completed, he returned to Scotland where he “wrote and planted trees” and was at loose end. Then, in 2003, with the invasion of Iraq, he went to Baghdad and asked for a job from the British director of operations. He was appointed deputy governorate co-ordinator of Maysan – in place of an Iraqi governor, he was to exercise all executive, legislative and judicial authority in the province. It is this experience that informs The Prince of the Marshes (2006), a tangled web of names and political factions. It is also more bitter in tone than his first book; in Iraq, Stewart became deeply sceptical of what foreign intervention could ever achieve.

Now, at Harvard, he is famous for giving a lecture on politics in Maysan so complicated that it is almost impossible to sit through – which is, he says, the point. “Overarching theories are not very useful; you can’t just say that counter-insurgency is about five things:” – he lists the points on his fingers – “population security, negotiation with moderate elements, economic development, governance and an approach to the creation of an effective state.”

On the day we meet, the New York Times reports that it looks as if Obama’s policy of increasing troops in Afghanistan will work. Stewart has a different take. “The policy of troop increases will look ridiculous in 30 years,” he says. “They’re not going to make America safer from al-Qaeda. The theory of state-building is suspect. I’m not sure that the state they aim for is conceivable, let alone achievable. We should be pursuing a much more conventional development strategy in Afghanistan. And, if you want to combine that with a Special Forces unit that would make things uncomfortable for Osama bin Laden, then so be it.” He sighs. “But you can’t say that sort of thing to the policymakers. They’re grand, intelligent, busy people who have no interest in this kind of abstraction. They’re not interested in values, virtue, outlook … ” He pushes away a barely touched plate of mussels.

Something about the way Stewart speaks reminds me of David Cameron’s plea for “political novices” to join the ranks of Conservative party candidates. The two men share not only an Eton-Oxford education (though the Tory leader is six years Stewart’s senior) but a similar way of talking about family, community and tradition. Surely the young adventurer would be a catch for a party hoping to rise above what Stewart calls the “silly corruption” of British politics? I ask if he has thought of returning to Britain – perhaps he has even been approached? – and he arouses my suspicions further by coyly brushing off my inquiry (“Such questions, Emily!”) When the bouillabaisse arrives, he looks relieved.

“I’d love to do politics in Britain,” he says after a pause to taste a delicious cauldron of shellfish, tentacles and soggy bread. “But the important thing is to understand our culture and society in order to know how you do that. Being an elected member of parliament might not be the best way – it could be, it probably is, but – well – the question is whether you can actually play a useful role in changing policy in any way.”

It’s hard to know where Rory Stewart really belongs. He says he likes working with communities, but it’s difficult to imagine him enjoying the lifestyle of a British constituency politician. He wants to “change things for the better in a way that is enduring and worthwhile and not just superficially impressive … or because it looks good on your cv”. In another age, he would have been a statesman, an explorer, a philosopher – but today?

A waiter clears our plates and offers the dessert menu. Stewart looks excited by a sorbet, and then changes his mind, opting for a double espresso, which turns out to be the only thing he finishes. (The Places in Between is full of passages in which he longs for bacon and champagne, but, if my experience is anything to go on, he needs a walk of at least 20 miles as a sharpener.)

Stewart’s latest venture is television. He has made a documentary series on Lawrence of Arabia that will be shown on the BBC. It’s his first TV programme but he is a natural presenter, coolly pensive as he talks to the camera in those perfect paragraphs, even as he rides a camel in the baking heat, looking a little like Peter O’Toole in the eponymous 1962 film. The comparison between Stewart and TE Lawrence has been made before. The literary critic James Wood, who also teaches at Harvard and is a friend of Stewart’s, explains, “Rory is wily; he observes the locals closely, and he learns their ways – that’s how he’s survived.” But when I broach the comparison, Stewart at first brushes it off: “Anyone who says that I’m like Lawrence doesn’t know much about Lawrence and knows even less about me.”

Pressed a little further, though, he seems to have given the matter some thought. “I suppose I do share with him certain kinds of things.” He lists the items on his fingers: “I’m obsessed with heroes and the classical world; I have some kind of complex about knights in shining armour and would like to be one; I’m very suspicious of imperialist and colonialist projects; I would like to give voice to local people and to largely allow them to forge their own destiny; I have a huge amount of respect for traditional cultures in a way that would today be considered romantic or orientalist; I’m appalled by the way in which policy moves like a testy elephant in exactly the wrong direction … ” – he takes a breath as coffee arrives – “but my sense is that I’m a bit rougher and tougher than he is. He’s tough to the most insane degree in that he can ride a camel for two days across the desert – but you get the sense that his soul is fragile, on the edge of breakdown. I’m a bit lacking in that kind of sensitivity.”

Over coffee, we talk about travel writing. “I don’t like Lawrence,” he says. “I don’t like all that ornate Swinburnian stuff.” I could have guessed as much; his writing style is as sparse as Hemingway’s (perhaps more so; Stewart leaves out the romance). He mentions a trip to East Timor and I ask if he’ll write a book about it. “No, no, no!” he cries, a little petulant. “I would like to write a book of political philosophy!” I ask what he’s reading and he describes the books by his bath, squinting to locate each title on an imaginary pile: Johann Georg Hamman, Alisdair MacIntyre, Montesquieu, Hume, Bernard Williams, Hannah Arendt and, he laughs as he reaches the bottom, the graphic novel Watchmen.

He offers to walk me to my bicycle, and we leave the cool restaurant for the summer afternoon. After so much talking, Stewart is pensive, and seems less purposeful. He confesses he has no idea where he’s going; I wonder if he’s being metaphorical, but, no, his PA has his diary. Loitering on the street corner, he turns to me suddenly.

“Do you think I should be a politician, Emily?” he asks. I say why not. “Do you think I should I be prime minister?” I tell him that I think he should try being a politician first. Stewart clearly has some concerns about how he would be received as an MP in Britain. Will people be prejudiced towards him because he went to Eton? Does he come across too earnest in interviews? Should he be more light-hearted? Does an MP need to support a football team? Stewart is better at observing ancient Afghan traditions than modern British ones; he doesn’t know a thing about football. The only advice I can think of seems to come from his own book – to keep acting on his feet, and to bear in mind that no one, not even Rory Stewart, can be an expert on everything.

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