Why Samantha Power Will Break Our Hearts

Andrew Stobo Sniderman on why the new U.S. Ambassador to the UN is destined to disappoint her strongest supporters.
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August 7, 2013

I was a 20-year-old smart ass when I first picked up Samantha Power’s book, A Problem From Hell, in the fall of 2004. My international politics professor had assigned her thick chapter on Rwanda, so on the night before class, still smarting from a botched date in Philadelphia and hurtling toward Swarthmore College in a rickety SEPTA train, I opened to page 329. There I read about the inept American response to the massacre of 800,000 human beings in 100 days in 1994. And just like that, Samantha Power’s words changed my mind, and my life. Later, I learned that she did this for a generation. 

Power has become the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Cue the collective swoon of human rights activists, who claim her as their standard bearer. But she cannot possibly meet their expectations – her forthcoming genuflections to realism are bound to clash with the idealism and idealists she has nurtured her entire career.

Power’s central allegation in A Problem From Hell was that the United States systematically ignored the genocides of the 20th century. As it happened, soon after her book’s release, the first genocide of the new century began in Darfur, taunting Power’s hopeful coda that things didn’t always have to be thus with American foreign policy, as long as a new generation of activists wished otherwise and became politically savvy enough.

Toting our dog-eared copies of A Problem From Hell, many thousands of us built the largest student advocacy movement since the anti-apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s. We wanted to end the genocide in Darfur. We failed[1], more or less, but many of us tried, longer and harder than any previous collection of Americans, and fewer people probably died because of it. We lobbied on behalf of black African Muslim strangers because their own state was killing them. We did it for them, but we also did it for Samantha. We made her dream our own and sweat it into reality.

Naturally, we wanted to meet the high priestess of anti-genocide in the flesh. We pestered her inbox and Harvard assistant, but to no avail. Undaunted, a few of us loaded up a rented car one morning and drove the seven hours from Philadelphia to Boston. We located her Harvard office and set anchor in the waiting room. Eventually she shuffled in from an appointment with her chiropractor, but no, she wouldn’t refuse us an audience. We hoped she would endorse our arguably wacky effort to solicit private donations for Darfur’s few armed African Union peacekeepers, the only people somewhat willing to protect villages being bombed and pillaged. She seemed mildly dazed by our fervour, as if she hadn’t quite yet grasped the magnitude of what her words had wrought.[2]

The 21st century anti-genocide movement[3] was built to stop wanton killing in Darfur, but it was also implicitly driven by a critique of conventional realist foreign policy. Realpolitik, with the signature harsh click of its concluding syllable, counsels the ruthless, amoral pursuit of narrowly defined national interests. Its most infamous proponent was Otto von Bismarck, a wily 19th century German leader who manipulated the European balance of power to and fro in Germany’s best interest.

In the United States, it was realpolitik that led to the doubling of American aid to Saddam Hussein while he gassed the Kurds in the late 1980s (meanwhile, the Iraqis were serving American designs by killing Iranians in even greater numbers). It was realpolitik that saw the United States strangle democratic aspirations in 1973 Chile and later funded the brutal Contras in Nicaragua (socialism that looked like communism was on the march in America’s backyard!). It was realpolitik that condoned the CIA intelligence trades with Sudan[4] in 2005 even as President Bush condemned Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for directing the genocide in Darfur (Calculus = Anti-Terrorism > Humanitarianism). Each of these policies was disgusting but deemed necessary. Bismarck’s modern heirs, proudly calling themselves realists, practice unrepentant instrumentalism at the service of a narrowly defined national interest. They remain the dominant force in American foreign policy.

Samantha Power asked us to imagine an alternative, one in which American foreign policy is increasingly guided by human rights. She is far from the first to do so, but Power has written better and reached a wider audience than any of her contemporaries. Her alternative to realism rests upon two fundamental propositions.

First: expand the definition of interests worth defending with foreign policy. The less narrowly conceived the “national interest” is, the more likely the United States will have to take into account the interests of people who happen to live outside its borders. It is true that democratic institutions in a non-angelic state will inherently produce policies biased toward its own citizens. It is also true that even a superpower needs friends – the United States must concern itself to some extent with the provision of global public goods and the welfare of its trading partners and strategic allies. The work of the human rights activist is to move the United States beyond merely instrumental self-regard. This happens as the value of a foreign life steadily increases in the minds of American policymakers. Thus can we understand President Obama’s statement, almost certainly crafted with Power’s input, that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest.”[5] As human rights increase their share of the national interest, the game changes.

Second: require that individual policies withstand moral scrutiny. American support for Saddam Hussein while he rained chemical gases on his Kurdish citizens was wrong, period. So was the pervasive torture during the so-called War on Terror (involving organ failure,[6] and otherwise). The alternative involves more regard for principle and less for utility, more Kant and less Mill. This would not transform American foreign policy into charity, but require that it act within certain moral limits. It is extremely unlikely, for example, that Samantha Power will ever praise a “son of a bitch” who does America’s dirty work.[7]

To be sure, Darfur activists who took their cues from Samantha Power learned the language of realism to cater to a policymaking audience. Thus we drew squiggly lines linking the fate of Darfuris to the hardcore of American national interests. We gravely reminded our listeners of the Sudanese President’s old ties to Osama Bin Laden. We hinted at the possibility of resurgent terrorism inside a dysfunctional and genocidal Sudan. Any casuistry was always well intentioned. We learned to speak of self-interest even when we thought in ideals, and dreamed of a different kind of foreign policy.

Yes, beyond Darfur, the students of Samantha Power developed a larger and even more ambitious goal: the end of American realpolitik. This also describes what many now expect Samantha Power to advocate.

The idea has always been to leverage American power to do some good abroad.[8] President Jimmy Carter used to claim he placed human rights at the “soul” of American foreign policy, but he was too busy Cold Warring to make good on his occasional grandiloquence. It remains open to debate how much practical wisdom for hard and concrete cases like Syria is provided by the two broad principles outlined above – enlarge the definition of the national interest, and restrict the legitimate means to pursue it. The central question remains: what does a human rights-driven foreign policy actually look like in practice?

It should not involve realpolitik’s equally ugly sister, what we might call moralpolitik, which reveres principles over consequences, the right over the good, justice over peace. Moralpolitik can favour bumbling interventions without the requisite respect for local contexts. Its adherents talk loudly and ask for big sticks. At its absurd extreme, it advises, as Ferdinand I of the Holy Roman Empire put it: “Let justice be done, though the world perish.” Rather, if America becomes inclined, contra John Quincy Adams, to go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” it cannot do so recklessly and risk making matters worse.[9] Human rights discourse fails when it is tone deaf.

By contrast, what recommends realism is its resolute pragmatism. There is no denying the abiding usefulness of some of America’s hypocrisies. Tyranny is bad, but tyrants can make reliable allies. See, for examples, the unapologetic American embrace of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt (1981-2011). Realpolitik is attractive, at least in the shorter term, because it often works on its own modest and callous terms, not because it is inspirational.

There is a way to combine the deontology of human rights and the utilitarianism of realism. It requires some blend of principled pragmatism. This, ultimately, is what can be fairly expected of Samantha Power as Ambassador to the United Nations.

Her most fervent admirers may wish for her to act like the UN Secretary-General. In reality, she will sit within an enormous bureaucracy, a senior cog but still far from her own boss. We are used to Samantha Power the critic and the campaigner, the truth-teller and dreamer. Things will be different now. Her transition from fearless gadfly to constrained icon of the establishment is complete. No doubt her time at the National Security Council since 2009 has changed her. Yet her role in the Obama administration has thus far been largely veiled from scrutiny and any attendant requirement for public justification. Perhaps any disillusionment, when it comes, will be belated. Even Samantha Power cannot overcome the entrenched realism of American foreign policy.

If Samantha Power leaves no discernible mark on American foreign policy, it will be the surest proof that individuals, even shooting stars turned powerbrokers, become absorbed by government structures and logics largely out of their control. I find this unlikely in her case. She reportedly has the ear of the President and is likely to counsel a more humane foreign policy placing greater weight on non-American human rights.

Still, she will face realist counterweights at the Department of Defense and Foggy Bottom. Sometimes, maybe often, she will lose. American diplomacy’s undisputed human rights champion will at times be forced to publicly fight with one hand tied behind her back. When she does, she will break the hearts of the true believers she once inspired.  This could become a cause for debilitating cynicism. Instead, her supporters should prepare to channel their disappointment into political will of the kind that will help her defeat her formidable realist rivals. She still needs our help, now more than ever.

[1] Rebecca Hamilton gives a comprehensive and sobering account of the movement in Fighting for Darfur. Mahmoud Mamdani paints a more disastrous portrait in Saviours and Survivors 

[2] Later, she spoke of this meeting in a commencement address to Santa Clara University law school.

[3] There have been many previous anti-atrocity political constituencies in Western countries, as Gary Bass recounts in Freedom’s Battle. Darfur advocates were never really the moral trailblazers they thought themselves to be.

[4] Ken Silverstein reports.

[5] Ditto with George W. Bush’s ambitious President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (best known as PEPFAR); rarely has the expenditure American wealth saved the lives of so many strangers.

[7] FDR on President Samoza of Nicaragua: "Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

[8] To the skeptics: this approach is admittedly fraught with risk but not necessarily doomed to failure.

[9] John Quincy Adams, in 1821: the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”