The Education of an Idealist
There comes a time in everybody’s life when you have to decide what version of yourself you are going to accept. Are you going to reinforce power structures that encourage inequality and human rights abuses, or are you going to work to topple them?
For human rights activists, this question represents a fundamental moral dilemma. Criticising governments is our bread and butter. But if you had the chance to influence government policy from the inside, what ethical limits would you be prepared to set for yourself?
These are questions that Samantha Power – activist, academic and President Obama’s adviser on human rights and later diplomat to the United Nations – has certainly grappled with. Power first shot to prominence in 2002 with her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell, which accused the US government of failing to intervene in the genocides of the twentieth century. Power backed her accusation with evidence US governments knew more about the genocides than they publicly acknowledged.
Upon Obama’s announcement of her candidature for US Ambassador to the UN, some commentators felt her outspokenness would be her downfall. They were wrong, but her book reveals that she does seek to protect her legacy. It remains, however, an important reality check for anyone concerned about human rights.
Written as a straightforward political memoir, the book traces her life from her parents’ marriage onwards. It is likely that Power felt compelled to do good at an early age, perhaps even subconsciously. Her father, an amusing raconteur, was also alcoholic and her mother, a doctor who worked against familial and social expectations to enter medicine, eventually left him, taking Samantha and her younger brother from Ireland to the United States with her new partner. Power’s father missed them dreadfully and spiralled deeper into alcoholism. When he passed away, his body was found on her old bed, and his death haunted her life as a young adult.
Post-Pulitzer, she started working for Senator Obama, and they developed an intellectual rapport which led her to become his adviser on human rights when he became the President.
After graduating from Yale and interning at a thinktank where she made influential allies, Power flew to war-torn Bosnia to make her name as a freelance journalist. Here, she was exposed to the reality of calculus and compromise at a fundamental level, particularly through the story of Bosnian businessman, Fikret Abdic.
Abdic ran a food-processing company that employed many people in the Bihac region. In order to keep producing food, Abdic struck an agreement with the Serbs to prevent them from blocking his supplies. While the Bosnian government denounced him as a traitor, the civilians Power encountered expressed gratitude to him for preventing their starvation.
This situation highlights that moral complexities are sometimes intractable. While the Bosnian government sought to maintain a strong line against those responsible, in reality, the survival of its citizens depended on compromise. It also foreshadows the implications of the stances that Power takes in her future career; in doing good, simultaneously causing harm is not always avoidable, and the event that tips the balance in favour of humanitarian intervention (for example, Assad’s use of chemical weapons) is always fraught for those making the decision.
Power writes “I did not yet have the relationships, the clout, or the mastery of bureaucratic processes I needed to maximise my impact.”
Post-Pulitzer, she started working for then senator Barack Obama, and they developed an intellectual rapport which led her to become his adviser on human rights when he became the President. Having identified the timeliness of US Government interventions to prevent mass atrocities in foreign countries as a major problem in her first book, Power writes that she and Obama agreed on the “seeming inevitability of mass atrocities” and their corresponding approach to “optimize what the United States did in response.”
Reflecting on the frustrations of her early work in the White House, Power writes “I did not yet have the relationships, the clout, or the mastery of bureaucratic processes I needed to maximise my impact.” Her idealism was challenged, as she learned that “sharing the same general political loyalties does not mean that people are kindred spirits.” In meetings, she jostled with other advisers to be heard, and had to make strategic decisions involving compromises an idealist wouldn’t broach.
In Burma, she faced Aung San Suu Kyi’s wrath, who felt that a visit planned by President Obama was happening at the wrong time. She tells Power: “This is your decision, but the consequences will be ours to cope with.” They tussled over the treatment of the Rohingya, with Suu Kyi dismissing the reports of widespread violence against them as “propaganda”. Power describes Suu Kyi as a “bad listener” and finds it strange that Suu Kyi’s “whole life has been about human rights, but it is not clear she cares that much about humans.”
This comment is revealing in a few ways. Power seems to share the West’s broad surprise when Suu Kyi’s anti-Rohingya stance came to the fore, despite Suu Kyi’s longstanding views on the subject. It is also apparent that, despite being a bureaucrat, Power retained her proselytising zeal for human rights. This prevents her, however, from reflecting on the possibility that, in some ways, Suu Kyi and herself represent two sides of the same coin; they both have agendas, and surely it is to be expected that sovereign nations will at times resist the US seeking to extend its influence within their borders. (Later, Power will publicly repudiate the idea that the US is an empire).
Power’s transition from activist to bureaucrat is evident in her language: she uses the word “pivot” and drops the line: “I had run a number of policy processes to their conclusion.” In addition, she also invokes the word “optics,” a euphemism also used in Australian politics denoting the cultivation of a political style or media image over policy substance. For Power, optics became central to her work, as she had to make calculations about the blowback of holding meetings with dissidents and opposition figures around the world.
As Obama approached his second term, Power lobbied him for the role of Ambassador to the UN. Despite writing that she “hated the sound of advocating for my own advancement,” she was clearly willing to do what it took to secure her position, calling in favours as she lobbied Republicans likely to oppose her appointment. Fresh in the role, the Mexican Ambassador told her she had to choose between being an activist and a diplomat, but Power continued to try to straddle both worlds.
Power the bureaucrat shines through alongside Power the activist. She doesn’t cede any ground where her reputation is concerned; she knows she has made compromises, but her self-belief remains intact.
As a valuable insight into the inner workings of the Obama presidency, Power’s book is a useful reality check for those contemplating a future in human rights advocacy. Power the bureaucrat shines through alongside Power the activist. She doesn’t cede any ground where her reputation is concerned; she knows she has made compromises, but her self-belief remains intact. Acknowledging that she didn’t achieve everything she wanted to in the Obama Administration, she nonetheless argues that “[p]eople who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world, but they can change many individual worlds.” This echoes Mother Theresa’s words which Power invokes earlier in the book: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
Despite her “education” in realpolitik, Power’s belief in this mantra indicates that she hasn’t adopted the utilitarian calculus as her rationale for humanitarian action. The challenges in her upbringing, her time in Bosnia and her grounding in genocide studies are all to thank for this. In a poignant scene at a memorial commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, she tries to comfort a Bosnian mother who is burying her fourth son. Reflecting on the mother’s grief, she writes “[w]e never know how much time we will have with those we love.” As a rallying cry for humanitarian action, surely this should satisfy both idealists and pragmatists.