Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Samantha Power and Barack Obama at the White House on June 5, 2013. (Courtesy Reuters)
As the first red-headed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power will cut a distinctive figure in the organization’s staid meeting rooms and endless cocktail receptions. But she will also stand out in ways that go well beyond appearance. By virtue of her youth, professional background, philosophical commitments, and direct personal style, Power has the potential to be a uniquely effective U.S. envoy. By raising the UN’s visibility and cache, and by doubling down on its role as a force for human rights and the mediation of violent conflict, Power could be just what the United Nations needs to help galvanize it for the twenty-first century.
Power’s foreign policy career was born in a war zone, and the horrors she witnessed have left a permanent mark. She covered the 1990s Bosnia war as a freelancer, working alongside a group of journalists, many of them women, and several who would forge distinguished careers working to protect human rights. From there, she went to Harvard Law School (where we met) and melded her interests in human rights law and writing into the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem From Hell, her book tracing the history of U.S. responses to genocide. It was that book, and Power’s impassioned call for the United States to prevent and stop future atrocities, that led her to a meeting with Senator Barack Obama in 2005. With that discussion, she won a prominent role advising him in the Senate and on his presidential campaign.
When an intemperate comment about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton relegated Power to a less public role in the Obama White House than many expected, she buckled down as the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights (where I worked with her while serving as a Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organizations at the State Department). It quickly became clear that Power favored action over indefinite deliberation, a quality that career officials found alternately electrifying and terrifying. When she helped spearhead a forceful press on human rights in Burma in 2010, officials pushed back, but not before Naypyidaw heard the message that Washington was serious. But she quickly learned the political appointee's version of Reinhold Niebhur’s fabled serenity prayer; that much of the U.S. government is maddeningly immutable and that one's short time in office must be used in the places where he or she can most make a difference.
Power used her White House perch to mobilize the foreign policy bureaucracy to develop the Obama administration’s forward-leaning approach on gay rights, open government, and -- no surprise -- the prevention of mass atrocities. These efforts required painstaking staff work drafting and clearing memos, recruiting international supporters, and smoothing out bureaucratic tiffs and turf battles. Their results include lasting policy changes that enshrine U.S. leadership on gay rights, through a global initiative to elevate gay rights as human rights; build enduring new structures, such as the Atrocity Prevention Board, which is charged with uniting government agencies to avert gross abuses; and promote emerging international norms on greater governmental transparency that are monitored by a new intergovernmental partnership of 55 countries.
Power’s original passions fueled her throughout her time at the White House. It is true that she and other like-minded administration staff failed to get human rights weighted more heavily in the White House’s handling of the war on terror during Obama’s first term (although that shortcoming may finally be rectified, depending on what comes out of the president’s counterterrorism speech two weeks ago). Power recognized that debates over hot-button issues such as Guantanamo and drones were dominated by the military and intelligence agencies, so she chose to train her energies on issues that allowed her to get a hearing and move policy. As Obama’s top human rights advisor, she championed a run for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council and, once the United States was elected, supported an ambitious approach to engage the Council in addressing crises in Cote d’Ivoire, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, and Syria. And in the seminal debate on Libya, she bridged her differences with Clinton and built internal consensus across National Security Council directorates. In helping the Obama administration speak with a strong and unified voice on Libya, she helped pave the way to the unanimous UN Security Council resolution that approved action to protect civilians from brutal attacks orchestrated by former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Critics on the left will scorn Power for her support for military intervention in Libya and backing for U.S. engagement to prevent and stop atrocities in far-flung places. Some of these analysts believe that the United States does more harm than good around the world, almost regardless of who is in power and what policies are being pursued. Although U.S. humanitarian intervention does yield unintended and unpredictable consequences, however, Power has for nearly 20 years made the point that passivity is hardly a panacea. As she has witnessed and documented, inaction in the face of brutality can pave the way for mass deaths, gross human rights abuses, and a hardening of political conditions -- including popular despair -- that virtually ensure more of the same.
There is nothing wrong with debating whether the United States -- and particularly its military -- are fundamentally agents for good or ill in the world. But there is something to be said for populating the ranks of U.S. foreign policy decision-making with officials who believe the country can be a positive force and want to make it so. Power is not someone who has never seen an intervention she did not like. As a writer herself and someone with close ties to progressive NGOs, Power is willing to hear and weigh the counter-arguments. Her time in the White House -- going toe-to-toe with regional officials and counterparts responsible for defense, intelligence, and economics -- have helped her understand the constraints and pitfalls of U.S. intervention around the globe.
Because Power's first stint in policymaking came in the post post-9/11 era -- a time of reduced U.S. budgets, grinding battles against terror, and the rise of other powers around the world -- she never had to unlearn a lesson about Washington’s ability to call the shots on global decisions or to go-it-alone in intervening to solve international problems. Her only first-hand experience of the United States' role in the world is one framed by American dependence on the genuine partnership of others, and by the need for the United States to behave in ways that can elicit such cooperation. This understanding is at the core of effective diplomacy at the UN.
That said, Power’s personality will stand out amid a UN culture that prizes protocol and prepared statements. Hers is a natural, rather than a carefully-honed, persona. She says what she thinks and her face and tone of voice show how she feels. She has only so much patience for pleasantries, and occasionally goes off script. One role model for her in this regard is Richard Holbrooke, a long-time mentor she first got to know in Bosnia. By all accounts, Holbrooke’s time as UN ambassador was a success, marked by a determined effort to notch concrete achievements: settling U.S. arrears to the UN, calling global attention to the AIDS crisis, and addressing festering wars in Africa. Power, like Holbrooke, has the potential to disarm, charm, and build personal relationships that can help cut through the bureaucratic niceties that sometimes prevent business from proceeding at the UN.
If Power can marry Holbrooke’s pragmatic approach -- using the UN as a problem-solving agent -- with her friend and predecessor Susan Rice’s strength at tying UN diplomacy tightly to Washington's policy priorities, the United States may finally come to recognize that in an era of shrunken budgets and diffused global power, a well-functioning and empowered UN can be a crucial vehicle to get things done.