As violent conflict roiled the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Timor-Leste around the turn of the millennium, Christie Warren, a Virginia-based attorney, packed her bags. Warren flew nearly 24 hours from Richmond, Virginia, to Sydney, Australia, and then on to the northern-Australian outpost of Darwin. There, she boarded a United Nations plane north for Dili, Timor-Leste’s capital. She settled into her new living quarters: a cramped container on a barge floating off Dili’s coast, which she shared with a rotating roster of roommates.
Each morning, she walked a gangplank to work in Dili’s municipal buildings, where power and running water had yet to be restored. In 1999, the Timorese had launched an uprising for independence from Indonesian rule. The months of bloodshed would decimate an estimated 70 percent of the local population. Some days, Warren helicoptered over armed militias en route to remote provinces. She returned to the barge each evening before sunset, after which fighting and looting tended to escalate onshore.
The assignment was a typical one for Warren, who has spent decades traveling — often at the behest of the United Nations — to regions reeling from upheaval. She has worked in more than 55 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Her job: provide support and advice to local leaders as they seek to bolster legal systems and institutions frayed by conflict. That might mean aiding in implementing new criminal codes, or even helping to draft a new state constitution from scratch. In Timor-Leste, it meant establishing a training program for local judges.
“There’s a vacuum that comes immediately after conflict,” Warren tells me. “You have to start thinking about and planning for rule-of-law issues immediately.” A functioning court system where perpetrators are held to account, she says, is a major step toward reestablishing peace.
Warren, a Bay Area native, has expressive green-gray eyes and shoulder-length dark-blonde hair. She chuckles often and chats with a warm gregariousness that belies a deep intensity. When she speaks about her work, it’s with a seriousness that makes it easy to imagine her counseling heads of state, or donning a powder-blue bulletproof vest in Iraq, or running marathons and scaling Himalayan peaks—“for fun.”
At the core of Warren’s work is her fundamental belief in the power of comparative analysis — of seeking out a wide array of perspectives and possibilities. She doesn’t presume to tell officials, for instance, how to structure their legal or judicial systems. Instead, she presents them with options that have worked well in similar situations elsewhere. In 2007, in Kosovo, for instance, she created a PowerPoint for local officials with several examples of what an effective decentralized government might look like.
“I don’t like linear thinking, being locked into one perspective,” she says. “I find it to be kind of elitist. I want to know what the other options are.”
In short, Warren is an adviser — not a scribe. And this distinction is a crucial one, she says, particularly given what she characterized as a long, troubling history of Western nations dispatching their own officials to mold constitutions elsewhere to their liking.
“There’s a misconception that international advisers parachute in and tell people how to live a better life,” she says. “The whole idea of Western domination is just kind of an ugly part of our history. It’s not the norm anymore.”
Warren’s comparative approach has also informed her personal decision-making. She told me she didn’t initially set out to broker world peace. Rather, she found her way to her current work by giving herself permission to imagine — and then investigate — alternative pathways.
As an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley, Warren was drawn to the field of comparative literature because it encouraged pluralist thinking. In the process, she became fluent in French, Spanish, Latin, and Swedish. She seriously considered pursuing graduate studies in the field and teaching full-time. But on a post-graduation backpacking trip through Europe with her then-boyfriend, she changed her mind.