Samantha Power and the Importance of American Leadership
Updated: Mar 12
By Kate Begley, BSc Politics and International Relations student and Research Analyst at Bristol Social Science Review
President Biden has nominated former UN Ambassador Samantha Power to lead the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) (The White House 2021). This article will consider Power's belief in American leadership, its duty to protect people's rights, and ensure security worldwide. It will explore the emergence of her beliefs, the conflict between ideals and governance, and the increasing distrust of American hegemony. During the Obama administration, Power became the youngest ever US Ambassador to the United Nations. Initially, Power rose to prominence in 2002 with her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem From Hell, which reflected on American inaction in the face of genocide. She has championed the use of economic, diplomatic, and military force to alleviate atrocities, the likes of which she witnessed as a journalist during the Bosnian genocide in the 1990s. Although Samantha Power and the United States, more broadly, face the limitations of their influence, Power hopes that the America can champion and protect the fundamental rights and dignity of humanity.
As a young journalist in the 1990s, the Yugoslav Wars left an incredible impression on Samantha Power. Since then, she has been a serious force in fighting for people's security, rights, and dignity. Aged 23, Power reported on the violence in Bosnia, hoping to compel the Clinton administration to act. The US eventually established a no-fly zone in 1995, bringing about peace and paving the way for the Dayton agreement. In 2002, A Problem From Hell (Power 2007) was published, which examined the abandonment of responsibility towards the victims of genocide many interventionalists criticised. Power drew on examples such as the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the latter of which saw the murder of 800,000 people within just 100 days (Wertheim 2010, 152), arguing that American diplomatic, economic and military power could have a significant influence in such events. She posited that many lives could have been saved, had the administrations not lacked the political will (Power 2007). The belief that America must use its influence to prevent atrocities and protect human life and dignity has shaped and defined Power’s career.
Power is a skilled diplomat, driven to make a difference in American foreign policy. In 2008, she published a biography of UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello (Power 2008). Her admiration for De Mello reflects an admiration for the effective idealism that he embodied. As a journalist, she learnt that witness testimony was a powerful tool in shaping foreign policy (Power 2019, 104). Her awareness that one person's experience is often more impactful than the plight of anonymous statistics was integral as UN Ambassador, where she often invited refugees to testify before the Security Council (Power 2019, 114). Power played a crucial role in America's response to the Ebola epidemic, deciding to visit West Africa at the height of the epidemic so she could bear witness to the tragedy. Power's conscientious diplomacy will be invaluable to the Biden administration.
The Obama administration's response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria revealed the tension between Power's liberal ideals and the structural limits of her influence. In 2013, Assad conducted a large-scale chemical weapons attack against Syrians, killing over 1,400 people (including 400 children) with sarin gas (Power 2019, 358). Obama had previously described the use of chemical weapons as a 'red line' that could not be crossed without sever consequences (ibid, 366). Power supported this stance. The international community was poised for American military action against Assad, but it did not materialise. Obama was persuaded to bring the issue to Congress, partly because of David Cameron's decision to hold a vote in Parliament, but withdrew when it became apparent that support was lacking (ibid, 372-402). In the context of the war in Syria, the administration seemed to be suffering from the same inaction Power criticised in her book. Some condemned Power for failing to choose “principle over power” and betraying her ideals as part of the administration (ibid, 504). The example of Syria highlighted the limits of Power's influence, and she seriously questioned the value of her voice in the administration. However, Obama's desire to hear dissenting views affirmed her belief that she could make a difference in government. In the White House, Obama described how Power ‘evoked [his] own youthful idealism, the part of [him] still untouched by cynicism, cold calculation, or caution dressed up as wisdom’ (Obama 2020, 639). Though Power's ideals sometimes collided with the reality of government during the Obama administration, she remained determined to use the apparatus of government to campaign for what she believed in.
Some critics argue that Power's view of American foreign policy contributes to imperious and naive assumptions about its power. In his paper 'A Solution From Hell,' Stephen Wetheim (2010) criticises A Problem From Hell for promoting humanitarian military intervention — even as a last resort — and for failing to recognise the difficulty of establishing lasting peace and ensuring an effective withdrawal of troops. Power's support of the intervention in Libya in 2011 could face similar criticism. Though Power did not support the war in Iraq, Wertheim argues that the prominence of her ideas, including confidence in American ability to influence other states' domestic affairs, dampened opposition to the war (2010). The international view of US leadership has changed profoundly since Power began as a young journalist in Bosnia. Since the drawn-out intervention in the Middle East, the international community are wary of American ‘imperial self-righteousness and self-delusion’ (Jenkins 2015, 184). As America's position as a ‘moral arbiter’ seems less tenable in future, Power's perspectives on intervention seem somewhat outdated (ibid, 183).
Nevertheless, America remains an authoritative voice in the international community. Those who support Power’s approach to foreign policy believe that the US still has a moral duty to use its influence for the protection of individual rights and dignity. The isolationist 'America first' mantra of the Trump administration neglects the liberal values the United States has historically stood for. The liberal thinker Francis Fukuyama has noted the importance of American attention to international issues (Lowry 2020). Power herself has written about the lack of American leadership on the international stage during Trump’s presidency, epitomised by the withdrawal from institutions like the World Health Organisation (WHO) (Power 2021). In her role at USAID, Power will perform a crucial role in re-engaging with the WHO and the international community in the global fight against COVID-19. The United States’ role in championing liberal values and using its influence to help the most vulnerable remains vital. In government, Power will continue to fight for this kind of leadership.
Power, who arrived in America from Ireland aged nine, describes her view of the country as informed by an immigrant's optimism. After her experiences in Bosnia and Rwanda, however, Power believed the phrase 'Never Again' had been forgotten, and America was failing to live up to its liberal values. For the past twenty years, Power has been a forceful advocate for these values, both within and outside government. Over this time, Power has faced the limits of her influence within the government machinery. American leadership also has to come to terms with the limits of its authority on the international stage. Even amid these constraints, Power and the United States can and should stand for fundamental rights and dignity in the international community.
This article was first published on the Bristol Social Science Review Volume 1, Number 4 on LinkedIn in early March 2021.
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