'Powered' Out: Samantha Power Misunderstood Her Role


'Powered' Out: Samantha Power Misunderstood Her Role

Samantha Power is well aware of the dangers of imperial overreach, but she writes as though she remains insensible to the dangers of imperialism itself.

So if outcomes are indeed what really matter, Power accomplished precious little at the UN. Somewhere she must understand this, but as La Rochefoucauld said, “no one can stare for long at death or the sun,” and to the extent it is there to begin with, Power does not linger on its implications. Indeed, no sooner has she insisted on the centrality of outcomes then she does a complete U-Turn. It turns out that she doesn’t think the “scoreboard” matters all that much after all. For looking back, she writes, “I now see all that the scoreboard could not capture.” And what does this consist of? The answer is individual stories such as “the relief of a father who has been reunited with his son, newly free of a deadly disease,” or “the persistent attempts—after unforgivable acts—to find the humanity in one’s foe.” As Power puts it in the concluding sentence of her memoir, and here she is clearly speaking about herself and about the colleagues she admires to the young readers she hopes to inspire, “People who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world, but they can change many individual worlds.”

One scarcely knows where to begin. On one level, obviously Power is right: one can successfully aid or even rescue individuals even when the general direction of events becomes more and more horrific. And equally obviously, if one is in a position to help, whether directly or in the citizenly sense of pressuring one’s government to help or contributing materially or morally to groups or institutions that are in a position to do, one should. But to present this as a message of hope, as a moral warrant for her claim that idealism “must endure,” is a less considered reflection than it is an exercise in special pleading. Power sits on the board of the NGO The International Refugee Assistance Project, and an obvious counter-example, with which Power certainly must be familiar, would be the efforts undertaken in 1940 by another NGO created to assist refugees, namely the Emergency Rescue Committee that Varian Fry and his colleagues set up to rescue Jews in Nazi-occupied France. It was a noble project, and many Jews were rescued. In Power’s sense, Fry unquestionably changed many individual worlds. But Fry himself would have been the first to insist that the rescue of four thousand souls not only in no way mitigated the extermination of six million. As Pierre Sauvage wrote of Fry, his courageous acts “did nothing to reverse the direction in which the world was going.”

At one point in the book, Power alludes to a “Peanuts” cartoon sent to her by one of her mentors, Richard Holbrooke, the American diplomat who played a central role in the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war. Charlie Brown’s baseball team has just lost the game 184-0, and the “Peanuts” character asks: “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?” Charlie Brown or no Charlie Brown, one doubts that Power would take the view that, when her beloved Boston Red Sox baseball team loses a game, the scoreboard has not captured the essence of the situation, or take much solace in the old saying that “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” To the contrary, describing the Red Sox victorious playoff run in 2007, she recalls how she and her husband Cass Sunstein texted the team’s manager with advice about how to win. And yet when Power takes stock of her time representing the United States at the un, redefining winning becomes her default position. But whether she likes it or not, in international relations as in baseball, the scoreboard is indeed what matters.

In other contexts, though, Power is the first to insist on just that. She writes of advising her staff to “care less about inputs and more about outcomes,” and that her operations team at the U.S. mission had coffee mugs “made with the acronym gsd’ (for ‘Get Shit Done’) on the side.” It was a beloved phrase of Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor and one of Power’s predecessors as U.S. permanent representative at the UN. In her New Yorker profile, Power said that “As time wears on, I find myself gravitating more and more to the gsd people … Principles and positions,” she added, “only take you so far.” This certainly sounds like the view that in the preface to her memoir Power was at pains to deny she had come to espouse—that she had been “educated” to modify her idealism by “the brutish forces” she encountered. But the greater problem is the entirely plastic and amorphous character of so generic an expression as “Get Shit Done.” For it begs two obvious questions: get what shit done and get whose shit done? Only someone who thinks that the United States by and large is going to be dependably on the side of the angels, siding with the weak and powerless against oppressors large and small, could be drawn to such a simple-minded formula.

To be sure, the danger of any political memoir is a descent into solipsism, both national and personal. It is a trap that Power falls into regularly, though doubtless no more so than many other diplomats’ memoirs. But in Power’s case, this is compounded by a curious, Charlie Brown-like childishness, both about her own actions and those of her country. A particularly telling example of this comes when she describes telling her young son Declan how that day in the UN Security Council she had denounced Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, “doing her small bit to stand up to Putin,” as she describes it, and facing down her Russian opposite number on the UN Security Council, Vitaly Churkin. “I told [Declan],” she writes, “that I had made clear that just because Putin had big weapons did not mean he could take what belonged to other people.” But as Power tells it, her son was “focused on the one result that mattered—not who won the public debate, but whether the aggressor had retreated.” Declan, she writes, “had brought me down to earth.” So far so good. But then Power describes her own response, which is anything but earthbound. “Not yet, Dec,” she tells him, “but a Power never gives up, do we?” To which her son replies: “Never … And tomorrow you can try again.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with Declan’s attraction to such fantasies; he’s a child. But Power’s attraction to them dances at the edge of narcissistic absurdity. Why should anyone outside the Power family circle give a toss about whether or not a Power ever gives up? Perhaps a Churkin never gives up either (and given the failure of U.S. tub-thumping to change realities on the ground either in eastern Ukraine or in Crimea, perhaps the Churkins know how to deploy such doggedness to greater effect). The whole question is supremely irrelevant. The issue is what Power accomplished, and the truthful answer to this is not much. The most she can muster is that she managed to secure a vote in the General Assembly rejecting the legitimacy of a planned Russian referendum in Crimea on Moscow’s takeover of the Ukrainian province. This, she claims, citing an Associated Press story, was “a sweeping rebuke of Moscow.”

But was it really? Power comes close to acknowledging the marginal importance of what her diplomacy engendered when she writes that her success “did not mean I could answer Declan’s question in the affirmative. Putin had not left Crimea and was unlikely to do so. In fact, despite having denied his forces were there, the Russian president soon signed a treaty annexing the province.” But Power insists that “this was not nothing.” Why? Because “un maps would continue to depict Crimea as part of Ukraine,” and that “Putin would not be able to erase his crime” while “Ukrainians would know that most of the world supported them.”

However sincere these claims may be, Power does nothing to help her readers see why they should be taken seriously. Despite her pious assertions to the contrary, and her detailed descriptions of her diplomatic efforts, nothing Power “accomplished” at the UN with regard to relations with Russia or China amounted to much outside the hothouse that is the United Nations. This is because the UN is basically a talking shop, and while Power is an eloquent and at times inspired orator, such rhetoric has been shown time and again to be largely, and in many cases, particularly when the permanent members of the Security Council are involved, wholly irrelevant to what goes on outside UN headquarters on Turtle Bay.

Presumably, Power would reply that it is vital to fight the good fight whatever the outcome. And she would be right in doing so. The question she doesn’t ask—one wonders if it has ever occurred to her—is whether the words “fighting the good fight” and “a representative of the United States of America” belong in the same sentence. Her confidence suggests that the issue is not whether U.S. power is moral but rather whether or not the United States has the moral fiber to use that power. “If the United States steps back from leading the world,” she writes, “[whether] because of exhaustion, disillusionment, or internal division—American ideals, American prosperity, and American security will suffer.” Of course, Power may well be right that U.S. hegemony is good for American prosperity; all empires have prospered from their dominant position. The issue of security is far more debatable as arguably it is America’s presence everywhere in the world that makes U.S. citizens preferred targets. But American ideals? Power simply does not seem to be able to imagine, even if only to refute it, that American hegemony might be a betrayal of American ideals, not a fulfilling of them.