Samantha Power is an Irish-American academic, author, diplomat and human rights activist who served as the 28th US ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017, the youngest American to assume the role. She discusses with Vikram Zutshi her political memoir ‘The Education of an Idealist’, which traces her journey from her beginnings as an Irish immigrant to the US to her ascent to the inner halls of power:
You write about living through a painful childhood. How did it influence your career?
My father, an alcoholic, died a few years after my mother had brought nine-year-old me and my five-year-old younger brother from Ireland to America. Even though I was just a kid, I was haunted growing up by the idea that I could have done more to help my dad. I think that I have kept with me a determination to try to use whatever power I have – however limited that sometimes feels – to try to help those who don’t have control over their circumstances. I feel immensely privileged by the opportunities I have been given in America, and I have tried to use my platform to give voice to the struggles of those who haven’t been so fortunate.
As a human rights champion, you established yourself as one of the foremost critics of US military intervention and its often unilateral approach to foreign policy. Yet, in your book you write about the necessity of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the world’s hotspots. How do you reconcile this dissonance?
I actually don’t make the argument as you describe it. Instead, what I write is that the US shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the world’s toughest problems. I illustrate the importance of collective action – and US leadership – in securing the Paris climate deal, the Iran nuclear accord, and the end to the ebola epidemic in West Africa. As a practical matter, military force doesn’t address the underlying sources of conflict or upheaval. The mere presence of foreigners often generates significant local resentment and backlash. The US deployments to Vietnam and Iraq were marred by hubris, producing disastrous results for the countries invaded, and for the United States.
There are times, though, when immensely beneficial effects have resulted from the US taking a leadership role. I’m referring to reversing Saddam Hussein’s landgrab in Kuwait (1991), thereafter creating a protected zone for Kurds in northern Iraq, enforcing UN Security Council resolutions to protect civilians in Bosnia (1995), and, more controversially, mobilizing NATO countries to prevent Serbian atrocities in Kosovo (1999).
That said, legitimate multilateral military action also does little to address the underlying issues in another country. It takes sustained diplomacy and redress of longstanding structural socioeconomic issues in order to begin to mitigate the causes of conflict.
Was there an inherent conflict between your early idealism and real world demands after you became a White House insider?
In the face of mass atrocities or imminent genocide, the United States and/or other countries should attempt to mobilise collective action – ideally by banding together to apply diplomatic pressure, by imposing economic sanctions on the perpetrators of mass atrocities, or by orchestrating the dispatch of regional or UN peacekeepers. In rare instances, it may be appropriate to try to mobilise more significant military action at the UN, the African Union or elsewhere. Examples include the Australian-led multinational force in East Timor, the protected zone for Kurds in Northern Iraq, and the regional military effort in Africa against Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The authority to mobilise such “peace enforcement” action is laid out in both the UN and AU Charters.
Mass atrocities are a very extreme form of the human rights abuses to which your question refers. As President Obama’s human rights adviser, and later his UN ambassador, I had broad responsibilities for general human rights and multilateral affairs. I helped mobilise the creation of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a large multinational anti-corruption initiative, lobbied for the release of political prisoners around the world, promoted LGBT rights at the UN, assisted in assembling a mammoth anti-ebola coalition for West Africa, and much more. I have always been realistic about the limits of where idealism alone can take you. I feel very fortunate to have worked for President Obama who valued dignity and understood that the US is stronger when we act with others, and that – when confronted with large scale human rights horrors – our options are far more extensive than doing nothing or sending in the Marines.
What advice would you give to an idealistic youngster filled with a burning passion to change the world?
It is a distinctly personal choice as to where one feels most useful. I benefited enormously, once inside the US government, from having spent my career before as an activist and writer on the outside. Like all institutions, governments are composed of individuals, who have the power to do great and small good, to do great and small harm, and to ignore or address the hardest problems in the world.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.