Members of the 2023–24 class of the Robert and Marion Oster National Security Affairs Fellows Program are participating in an interview series in which they discuss their career experience, how they plan to spend the academic year, and their mentoring of Stanford undergraduate students. They also reflect on leadership lessons they learned in service to the nation.
Today, we speak to David Arulanantham, a foreign service officer focusing on U.S policy towards the countries of the Indo-Pacific region at the US Department of State.
Why did you join the US Foreign Service?
Since my childhood, I have been interested in foreign languages and other cultures. I spent the first seven years of my life abroad—mostly in Asia—before immigrating to the United States, so you could say it was partly due to that early exposure. In school and college, I was drawn to history, political science, and foreign affairs and sought out experiences that reinforced those interests—from internships in Washington to study abroad. At home, we discussed current events and my parents stressed civic responsibility, instilling in me the importance of an informed public and the need to engage constructively with others to shape the world around us. Nevertheless, growing up in California, it wasn’t preordained that I would go into public service. And working for the government was often the furthest thing from my mind. After graduation, like many of my peers at Stanford, I chose to go into the private sector.
A downturn in the economy following the end of the dot-com bubble in early 2000 forced me to take a hard look at my priorities, leading to a job in Washington, DC, and then to grad school in international relations, where I found myself among a cohort of like-minded individuals. I chose to join the foreign service because of the opportunity to live and work abroad while contributing to the common good. The variety inherent in the career—changing locations and jobs every few years—also appealed to me. I have remained in the State Department all these years because of the mission, sense of purpose, and opportunities it affords. If you want to work on complex foreign policy issues and further the national interest, there really is no other place to do it.
Will you tell us about your educational background?
I graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s in international relations and political science and completed my master’s in international relations at Oxford University.
Will you tell us about your career arc?
When I joined the State Department in 2005, I spoke French and expected to go to West Africa. To my surprise, I landed in Canada. Since then, I’ve spent the majority of my eighteen-year career working on US policy toward the countries of the Indo-Pacific region, focused heavily on South and Southeast Asia. I have spent five years over two assignments in India, most recently as head of the team reporting on all national security and counterterrorism issues in the country. From 2015 to 2018, I ran the office in the New Delhi embassy that looked at domestic politics and social issues. I have also led the foreign assistance team overseeing justice-sector and maritime security programs in Asia, served as a foreign policy advisor to the commander of the military’s Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), and handled our relationships with the maritime states of Southeast Asia in Washington during the early years of President Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia. On top of my regional specialization, I have spent a significant part of my career working on security issues, both from my time at INDOPACOM and as Deputy of the Political-Military section in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, managing one of the most complex defense relationships in the world.
Will you tell us how you heard about the Hoover National Security Affairs Fellowship and how you hope to make the most out of this academic year?
I have had my eye on the Hoover National Security Affairs Fellowship since early on in my career at the State Department. It struck me as a great opportunity to think and reflect on my experiences and, of course, return to the Farm! I have three principal objectives for my time at Hoover: 1) to mentor and guide students as they explore public service careers, with the goal of creating a community for them on campus; 2) to write and think about the tradecraft of diplomacy; and 3) to research and write on issues related to the Indo-Pacific and the countries of the Global South.
Part of the National Security Affairs Fellowship has been teaching and mentoring Stanford University undergraduate students. Could you tell us about your experience mentoring them?
The mentorship program has been one of the best aspects of the fellowship, and it’s been a real pleasure getting to know this year’s cohort. Students today seem to be even more aware and accomplished than when I was an undergrad nearly twenty-five years ago. The young adults I have been working with are curious, do their homework, and think three steps ahead. They ask hard questions about topics like work-life balance or managing differences of opinion in the workplace. Through them I’ve learned a lot about campus life, and they give me a lot of hope for the future of our country.
What does leadership mean to you?
We often think of leaders as epic historical figures like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. However, we forget the others who struggled along with them and how all of us have the capacity to lead in different ways in our daily lives. To me, leadership is about listening to those around you, holding yourself to high standards, being decisive, and harnessing the talents of others to accomplish common goals.