Shanthi Kalathil is the senior director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. Her work focuses primarily on authoritarian challenges to democracy in the information age. Previously in her career, she served as a senior democracy fellow at the US Agency for International Development, an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a non-resident associate with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, and as a consultant for the World Bank, the Aspen Institute, and other international affairs organizations. Kalathil has authored or edited numerous policy and scholarly publications, including Diplomacy, Development and Security in the Information Age (Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, 2013), Developing Independent Media as an Institution of Accountable Governance (The World Bank, 2008), and (with Taylor C. Boas) Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003). Formerly a Hong Kong-based reporter for the Asian Wall Street Journal, she holds degrees from U.C. Berkeley and the London School of Economics.
Over the years, sadly, we have seen many authoritarian countries prove capable of not just managing the political impact of technology but harnessing it toward greater geopolitical goals outside their borders.
How would you describe yourself?
Someone who is curious about many things and always trying to learn more.
You are an expert on China and also on Information Technology. How did you come to pick this career path?
In a way it kind of picked me. I studied communications policy as an undergraduate (somewhat randomly, since I had hoped to major in journalism but that wasn’t offered) and that piqued my interest in how information ecosystems shape so much of our understanding of the world. I then spent some time in China and Hong Kong and became fascinated with how new technologies such as the Internet were shaping politics, particularly in authoritarian settings. It was a time when many felt that the Internet would inevitably lead to a political opening in closed systems, but my subsequent research indicated that wasn’t necessarily the case. Over the years, sadly, we have seen many authoritarian countries prove capable of not just managing the political impact of technology but harnessing it toward greater geopolitical goals outside their borders. It’s interesting that many of the big picture questions about communications and politics from my undergrad days are still so relevant today – so maybe pay attention in class, it might lead to something!
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You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.
I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as “fearless.” I get stressed about things every day. I guess the fear is what tells you that you’re stretching and challenging yourself, though, and the hope is that you come out the other side stronger as a result. It’s okay to not aim for “fearless”.
What excites you when you wake up every morning?
Spending time with my family, before chaos descends.
Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community.
I can only hope that through exploring and sharing knowledge about current challenges to democracy and the ways democracy can be strengthened, my work has made a small contribution to the larger community. I can say that engaging at the very local level – through volunteering and other avenues – gives me the most tangible sense of satisfaction.
What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
In a very competitive environment like Washington, it can be tough to make your voice heard. For women working in foreign policy and international affairs, it sometimes feels like you have to work doubly hard, often in ways that are invisible to others. I had to force myself over a span of some years to become comfortable with public speaking, and now it’s something that I enjoy quite a bit, but it was a huge challenge because it really didn’t come naturally to me. There wasn’t any secret trick to overcoming it – I just kept at it and unfortunately gave many terrible talks that successively grew a little less terrifying each time.
In a very competitive environment like Washington, it can be tough to make your voice heard. For women working in foreign policy and international affairs, it sometimes feels like you have to work doubly hard, often in ways that are invisible to others.
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How do you manage self-care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?
I definitely believe in concepts like self-care and work-life balance, but have yet to figure out how to achieve them on a consistent basis. I do think they’re much easier said than done when you’re right in the thick of it, and maybe we should stop even pretending that we have adequately devised systems that make such things possible.
Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?
I think that label might have applied more aptly to me when I was in my 20s, working as a reporter and zipping off to places I could only have dreamed about as a kid growing up in a small town. These days I wrestle with global issues, but my life is centred on home and family.
What is the advice you would give your 16-year-old self?
It sounds like a cliché, but don’t sweat the small stuff, and definitely grab the opportunities that take you outside your comfort zone – those are the ones that will open up new worlds for you.
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What are the three values you think are most important for a global leader?
Empathy, perspicacity, having a moral center.
What’s next for Shanthi?
Always hard to predict, but as long as it involves learning and continuing to grow, I’m looking forward to it.