Surin studied at Thammasat University, Thailand. He graduated cum laude from Claremont McKenna College, California, in political science in 1972. From 1977 until 1980, he was a researcher for the Human Rights Studies Program, Thai Studies Institute and the Ford Foundation, Thammasat University, and from 1974 until 1978, he was a fellow of The Rockefeller Fellowship Program, The Rockefeller Foundation, Harvard University and American University, Cairo. Surin Pitsuwan earned a Master of Arts from Harvard University and did research at the American University in Cairo as a scholar of the Institute of Higher Council for Islamic Affairs of Egypt from 1975 until 1977 before returning to Harvard, where he received a Ph.D. in 1982.
Surin Pitsuwan was elected Member of Parliament from Nakhon Si Thammarat for the first time in 1986 and became Secretary to the Speaker of the House of Representatives the same year. In 1988, he was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Minister of Interior. From 1992 until 1995, he served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs before becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1997, serving in this capacity until 2001. Surin Pitsuwan was Chairman of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum from 1999 until 2000.
In addition to his political career, he taught at Thammasart University and wrote for two English daily newspapers in Bangkok between 1980 and 1992. From 1983 until 1984, Surin Pitsuwan worked in the U.S. Congress as a Congressional Fellow, Congressional Fellowship Program, The Asia Foundation and the American Political Science Association (APSA), while at the same time teaching International Relations at the American University in Washington, D.C. Since 2003, he has been a member of the board of trustees for The Asia Foundation.
He was Academic Assistant to the Dean of the Faculty of Political Science and later to the Vice Rector for Academic Affairs at Thammasart University from 1985 until 1986. Surin Pitsuwan is a member of the Commission on Human Security, a member of the Advisory Board of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, and a member of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalisation.
Between 2004-2006, Surin was widely touted as a possible successor to Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, by the international and Thai media, but he did not receive an official support from the Thai government under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra because Surin was affiliated with the Democracy Party, the main Thai opposition party. The Thaksin government decided to endorse the candidacy of its own foreign minister, Surakiart Sathirathai, who ended up coming third behind Shashi Tharoor of India and Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea, the eventual winner. Following the 2006 military coup in Thailand, there was a speculation that the military government would switch Thailand's candidate from Surakiart to Surin.
On June 18, 2007, the Thai cabinet unanimously endorsed the recommendation from the Thai Foreign Ministry for Surin Pitsuwan to be nominated as the Thai candidate to be the next Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He was confirmed by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers during their 40th annual meeting in Manila in July 2007 and succeeded Ong Keng Yong from Singapore on January 1, 2008. His term of office is five years. The Economist magazine, commenting that most Secretaries-General are "usually a senior regional official rewarded with the post as the crowning boondoggle in a career of not rocking the boat", states that Surin is different in that he seeks an activist role in member states. Surin Pitsuwan is the first ASEAN Secretary-General with significant political background.
On January 1, 2013, he handed his post to Le Luong Minh who be the new ASEAN Secretary-General. On January 17 he announced that he would be ready to take over the country’s education ministry “if given the chance”.
Surin's tenure at ASEAN saw the rise of the regional organization into an important global player in international affairs. “He will be a hard act to follow,” said Prof. Amitav Acharya of the American University in Washington D.C. Under Surin’s stewardship, Acharya said, ASEAN moved away from the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs” of member states that had been used by some to deflect criticisms of their human rights records, and the grouping succeeded in setting up its own Human Rights Commission. The change in direction followed Surin’s advocacy of a policy of “flexible engagement” towards Myanmar when he was Foreign Minister from 1997 through 2000. The policy called for increasing interactions with Myanmar leaders when they took steps towards reforms, and building people-to-people contacts between nations. Prior to that, ASEAN had been criticized by some for its policy of “constructive engagement,” which detractors said was simply a cover for businesspeople to ignore government repression. Acharya said that Surin would be remembered for guiding the grouping through challenging times, including the opening up of Myanmar, the United States entry into the East Asia Summit, and rising tensions over the South China Sea. “He was the most active, open and globalized ASEAN secretary-general ever,” he said. An editorial in the Jakarta Post lauded Surin as the most effective of the 12 Secretary-Generals in the grouping’s history.
Since October 2013, Surin has served as a Board Member of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, (HD) a private diplomacy organization whose mission is to prevent armed violence through mediation and dialogue.