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…”
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 …’”