Author: Samantha Power
Publisher: Dey Street Books
Publishing Date: September 10, 2019
Pages: 592 (Hardcover)
In 1945, Dutch-American Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg gave the “speech heard round the world” calling for partisan politics to stop “at the water’s edge.” Although once a staunch isolationist, Vandenberg’s experience of World War II reformed his perspective of international relations. During his service in the Senate, Vandenberg was key in shaping and gathering Republican support for the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, North Atlantic Trade Organization, and the United Nations. A skim of some of Vandenberg’s writings and documented conversations suggest that his amended approach could be described as one of principled engagement and moral responsibility.
It is from a similar vein of principled interaction and moral calling that Samantha Power’s lifelong work emerges. When President Obama named Power as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, he described her as “one of our foremost thinkers on foreign policy.” Through her advocacy and Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide “[Power] showed us that the international community has a moral responsibility and a profound interest in resolving conflicts and defending human dignity.”
In her memoir, The Education of an Idealist, Power welcomes readers into the deeply personal and influential moments of her life. Through the thoughtful telling of her story, Power shows the development of her principles as well as the pragmatic challenges of embodying principles in a broken world. In addition to providing a lens for considering principled foreign policy-making, Power’s memoir grapples with enduring questions regarding the right roles and responsibilities of government in international affairs, the virtue of idealism, and the power of one to catalyze change.
Divided into two parts, the first half of the memoir follows Power through the development of her principles. She shows readers how the arc of her life—from her family of origin, to her experience as a young immigrant, to her early professional life—shaped her worldview and thus how she would later influence U.S. international involvement. She shares how, while exploring a possible future in sports journalism, she witnessed unedited news coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre and began asking questions about the role of the U.S. in affairs around the world. Then, in her early twenties, she became a freelance war correspondent during the Yugoslav Wars. Following her witness of the Bosnian genocide, Power documents her development into a human rights scholar and activist. In addition to professional milestones, Power shares about personal trauma, loss and healing, which have also profoundly influenced her.
The second half of the memoir tells of Power’s experience of principles made policy. She documents her transition from a government outsider to not only a government insider, but eventually a presidential Cabinet official. As it turns out, the transition is easier said than done. While the skills of crafting and defending an argument translated, the forces of tradition are formidable adversaries. “I often heard one of two entrenched views,” Power writes. “‘We never do that,’ or ‘We always do that.’ The past was prologue: those who had conceived of policies in a certain way were ill disposed to try something new” (222). But, Power persisted. First as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council (2009-2013) and then as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (2013-2017), Power sought to prevent mass atrocities, advocate for the international community to take serious human dignity offenses, and advocate for U.S. foreign policy to seriously value human life, considering human consequences alongside traditional economic and military considerations.
Foregoing the false dichotomy of a foreign policy being either “America First” or “America Polices the World,” Power describes a principled engagement in international affairs that asks us to do the most good we can… with reasonable costs. Power’s approach, which she describes in action throughout the memoir, is a relationship-based approach. Power notes that, as UN Ambassador, she prioritized meeting her counterparts and developing respectful relationships with them, even in the face of deep and serious differences. Additionally, Power dedicates pages to showing the impact of an international coalition in the face of crisis. For example, Power writes about the crucial role the U.S. played as a catalytic voice in the UN, ultimately helping mobilize countries to contribute the resources they could—be it health professionals and experts or medical supplies—to curtail the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Yet, Power’s idealism is pragmatic. As an expert in genocide, she knows that we can’t rid the world of evil. The results she seeks aren’t justice fully realized, but rather are proximate. Reflecting on her time as a presidential adviser, Power shares, “just because we couldn’t right every wrong did not mean we couldn’t—or shouldn’t—try to improve lives and mitigate violence where we could do so at reasonable risk” (282). While discussing her tenure as UN Ambassador, Power also reflects that “sometimes, preventing a bad outcome is what passes for victory” (426). These are not the musings of a zero-sum approach to policy. Power’s approach is grounded in the belief that, while we cannot ourselves rid the world of evil, there are times when we can help restrain it. When we can help with reasonable risk—such as agreeing to airdrop medical supplies and food to a small ethnic minority fleeing their homes to a mountainside hoping to avoid slaughter, or perhaps deciding to not double an investment into a government overlooking ethnic cleansing—we should.
In truth, what most surprised me in Power’s memoir was not that bureaucracy tests our principles, but rather that our principles can survive bureaucracy. Often, it is tempting to focus on the crafting of principles that should be considered in policy, and write op-eds and social media posts accordingly. It’s tempting to say, “I value human life and dignity, so Congress must act in the face of this atrocity,” but not work out how those principles manifest fully. Power reminds readers who fall into this temptation that “[a] voice is not an end in itself” (267). The legacy of Senator Vandenberg, for example (my example, not Power’s), is not in that he claimed the importance of partisan cooperation, but that he embodied it. While there are moments when we fail our highest ideals and fall short in loving our neighbors—domestic and international, Power’s memoir demonstrates that complete disillusionment is not inevitable. Our principles can make a difference in policy, and in the world.
The Education of an Idealist is a dense and compelling read. As a novice to foreign policy (and, frankly, as one with limited previous interest in foreign affairs), the memoir is both captivating and intelligible. Power’s clarity of thought provides space for readers to wrestle with poignant concerns about the right role of the U.S. in current geopolitics, while also clearly articulating her point of view. The U.S. can advance human dignity and lead in our international community with reasonable costs, if only we choose to do so. Additionally, Power’s willingness to paint an intimate portrait of her life provides encouragement to fellow idealists, as well as mothers to young children, and serves as a reminder that one voice, whether from one person or one nation, can be a catalyst for concrete change. Even today, one can make a difference.