In The Magazine

An Englishman In New York

Wednesday, April 29, 2015
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The Modern, MoMA’s restaurant and bar, is surprisingly buzzy at 4:30 the day I’m scheduled to meet David Miliband, the UK’s ex–foreign minister and current CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) charity. Almost every recent article I read on Miliband mentions that he is not as well known in the United States as he is in the United Kingdom. However, just as we sit down for drinks, one of the managers comes over, gushing with praise for the ex-politician. Miliband accepts the attention graciously and then turns to me.

Other articles talk about how attractive he is in person, and they aren’t wrong. Even Hillary Clinton’s been won over; she’s said of Miliband, “He’s young, energetic, smart, creative, and attractive, with a ready smile.” He is happy to return the compliment and says that the remarkable thing about Hillary is that “she is an extraordinarily good listener, which people don’t associate with politics.”

He’s tall and trim, and exudes the nervous energy of someone who’s on what seems like his fifth cup of coffee and perpetually fighting jet lag. Indeed, he tries to order a coffee before being gently reminded that a Cocktail on the Avenue requires a proper drink. He gracefully acquiesces and we both settle on a California white (“We should have an American white, while we’re in America.”), and Miliband also orders a selection of sliders, as he’s skipped lunch.

He’s understandably busy. He’s the first non-American head of the IRC, a large global charity that helps people survive humanitarian disasters and rebuild their lives. What with running an organization with an annual budget of more than $500 million, a workforce of 12,000 people, and a presence in 38 countries, it’s no surprise that he’s having a hard time finding a moment to eat.

To an outsider, an ex–British politician who has never held a post of this kind before might seem like an odd choice to run such a large organization, but Miliband’s strengths lie in his considerable people skills and even more considerable Rolodex from his time as the UK’s foreign secretary (an equivalent role to our secretary of state). He is on a first-name basis with many of the leaders of the war-torn countries that his organization tries to help. He’s even met President Obama briefly. Additionally, he has a more personal connection with the IRC than one might realize. Miliband’s parents were Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis in Poland in 1940 and 1946. His mother had a particularly tough time, having lived through the war in Poland, where she was protected by various friends. Miliband says, “Her life was saved by people who were incredibly brave on her behalf and on her sisters’ behalf. She lost her father in the war, so it wasn’t a daily topic of conversation, but you had a sense that there was harshness to history.”

David Miliband was born in London and attended Oxford College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He didn’t linger in the United States aft er school, returning straightaway to the United Kingdom to work at a think tank. At 29 he was made one of Tony Blair’s heads of policy and was instrumental in bringing the Labor Party to power in 1997. He was elected to Parliament in 2001 and, under Gordon Brown, was promoted to foreign secretary in 2007.

Th en, famously, in 2010 his brother, Edward, stood against him to be leader of the Labor Party and, to the shock and surprise of many, won narrowly. As of the printing of this magazine, the UK general election is at hand, and the world is waiting to see if Ed Miliband will be the next British prime minister.

If any of that is weighing on Miliband’s mind right now, he doesn’t give any sign of it. Right now, as the head of the IRC, he’s got bigger fish to fry, like the continuing conflict in Syria and the constant threat of a larger Ebola outbreak.

Besides, Miliband says that he never expected to be in elected politics. “I always thought I would be a back-room person.” But once he was an MP, he really enjoyed it. “It was a huge privilege to be in government. We did lots of things that I think were good and some I think were bad.” He says, pausing reflectively for a moment, “It’s sort of learning. Now I’m looking at it from the opposite end of the telescope. A world where there isn’t a government, a world where there is a war going on . . .”

Miliband believes that in the age of globalization there is a need to act. “If you ignore the looming levels of suffering and misery, that makes you morally culpable. Th ere is a moral culpability that 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes and there’s not much that’s been done about it. It’s pretty amazing to me that the fourth anniversary of the Syrian conflict is next week and there is no political process developed, no light at the end of the tunnel. Then the question nobody’s got answers to is, What does anybody care?”

He wants to bring awareness back to New Yorkers, and in doing so wants to deepen the New York roots of his organization (“which is ironic in that I’m the first non-American to be president of the IRC”). The charity was founded by Albert Einstein in 1933 to “assist Germans suffering from the policies of the Hitler regime,” according to the New York Times. Miliband finds the historic ties with the organization helpful. “It’s not an accident that Einstein came to New York. New York is a global city for communicating with people from around the world. It’s got a big lesson to teach, and it should be part of New York’s identity. This is the ultimate global city, the ultimate
immigrant city.”

Despite the challenges of running such a large organization, Miliband’s beginning to love his time in New York. He and his wife, Louise Shackelton, a professional violinist, have settled into life on the Upper West Side with their two boys. If he’s not enjoying the rather painfully early school drop-off (“up at 6:30, out of the house at 7:15”), he’s at least savoring the chance to learn the piano in his spare time. He appreciates the merits of
having sent his children to summer camp and says that they are much more settled now, less impatient, not always asking, “When are we going home?”

He admits it’s been a little harder on his wife. “She’s taking a pause in her career, so that’s a challenging thing. But we think it’s very good for the family. I mean, New York is not a place, it’s an experience.”

Offering me one of his tuna sliders, Miliband tells me how he first met his wife. “On an airplane. It was a long time ago, 20 years ago now.” I asked him if he remembers where he was traveling to. He replies, “Of, course, how could I forget? I was coming from Rome in the summer to London.”

The Milibands are still getting their heads around the sheer physical size of the United States compared to England: “Distances here are massive—it’s a continental shelf.” As is the lack of one national ethos, which contrasts quite starkly with that of the United Kingdom: “The common culture in the UK is still very strong, while here it is very fragmented.” While Miliband won’t say that he’s committed to staying in the States forever,
he’s definitely here for a few years yet. “I miss my friends and colleagues, and I haven’t lost my interests in Europe and in Britain. If I was twiddling my thumbs, I’d be looking backwards, but there’s a lot going on. But we feel we’ve had some experiences that we would never have had being in the UK. And the kids will never forget it.”

Drinks and sliders finished, Miliband stands up to leave. In doing so, I catch a glimpse of a very natty orange lining. When I praise the suit, he beams and tells me that it was designed by his friend Ozwald Boateng, and pulls open the jacket fully so I can see the extent of his finery. His fans are right: he’s an energetic, enthusiastic, well-dressed guy who is still finding his feet in America. Let’s hope he stays long enough to really make
a difference.
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