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'People are tempted by careers that are immediately rewarding'

By Arthur J Pais
June 19, 2009 15:53 IST
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Get Ahead presents an interview with six Indian-origin youngsters who won prestigious fellowships in the United States.

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans gives out 30 grants to deserving candidates each year on a nationally competitive basis; this year, the Indian-American community garnered six, which translates into a maximum funding of $36,000 per candidate.

Here, first year JD candidate at Harvard Law School and DPhil candidate in international relations at Oxford Tarun Chhabra, 28, discusses how he came to win the prestigious grant and what he intends to do with the money.

Tarun Chhabra's passion for history and diplomacy began over 15 years ago, when he was first puzzled by an 'oddity' in his sixth grade World History class.

He wondered how a king raised in Belgium, speaking Dutch and French, ruled Spain and its vast empire. "I had no idea how difficult the question was," he wrote in his Marshall Scholarship essay a few years ago, "but the mystery of what precisely states, nations and governments were fascinated me. Soon thereafter, I began to listen to National Public Radio and pick up the local paper." He also began reading more on history, geography and world politics.

Today Chhabra, the son of physician parents, attributes his work to the curiosity sparked in that history class, and now aspires to work for the US government in the areas of foreign and national security policy.

"I also want to work with like-minded Congressmen, historians and political scientists to engage the American public vigorously in foreign affairs deliberations and issues," he says on phone from Oxford University, where he has just received an MPhil in international relations.

A first year JD candidate at the Harvard Law School and a DPhil candidate in international relations at Oxford, he earned a BA from Stanford seven years ago, with honours and distinction in international relations and Russian language and literature.

Chhabra has also served as a consultant-advisor to the Norwegian foreign ministry on its nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament initiatives. His interest in the Soviet Union led him, while studying at Stanford, to compete for international scholarships, and he became a Fulbright Fellow in Russia (2002-2003), where he studied how Russian academic and policy perspectives on US foreign policy had changed since the end of the Cold War.

Winning the Soros Fellowship validates the work he has been doing, Chhabra believes. "Any prestigious fellowship is more than an honour," he says. "But to someone like me who is contemplating a life in public affairs and entering in a new degree programme, there is a lot of financial comfort. Many people hesitate to take up a public career or go into degrees that will take them into public life because of financial concerns. They are tempted by careers that are immediately rewarding. A fellowship like the one I have just received gives a lot of comfort and encouragement."

In his essay, he spelled out his admiration for a handful of American policy makers. "President Harry Truman and Senator Arthur Vandenberg harboured few illusions about the difficulties that the United States and its wartime allies would have in living up to it," he wrote. "Nevertheless, they foresaw the benefits of a UN-based post-war architecture that addressed collective security problems, established shared aspirations for human rights, and, in so doing, cultivated support for US leadership in the world. It was this consensus that overcame enormous international skepticism to secure the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, arguably one of the most successful international agreements in modern history, and that led to the Helsinki Accords which ushered in a new era for human rights in eastern Europe."

The tragedy, says Chhabra, is that this tenet of bipartisan foreign policy consensus has frayed badly in recent times, and the timing for this decline could hardly be less felicitous. "With transnational threats such as climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and pandemic disease demanding concerted global action, the US policy has been riven by ideological dispositions tied more to the institutions themselves rather than the challenges they are intended to address," Chhabra argues.

Thanks to the fact that he lives and studies abroad, he has been paying more attention to international perspectives on American foreign policy, and has been in a position to witness and confront many of the competing perspectives in this crucial debate, he says.

"I grew up in a part of the country deeply skeptical about international institutions, whatever the question at stake," he wrote, recalling how five years ago he had worked on the staff of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's high-level panel for UN reform and in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General.

He sat behind US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton "as he brandished his red pen to delete each and every reference to the UN Millennium Development Goals."

"To be sure, I have witnessed the severe vulnerability of the UN bureaucracy to intellectual and moral sclerosis," he notes in the essay. At the same time, he adds, he has worked with some of the most talented and effective civil servants in America and the UN, and "seen firsthand the extraordinary -- and often exclusive -- moral and political authority that international organisations can command."

All of this has shaped Chhabra's vision for his own future. "Wherever my career takes me," he says, "it will be governed by an intellectual and moral commitment to the rule of law -- ensuring that it is secure and robust at home, and that it is sustained in our foreign policy abroad."

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Arthur J Pais