What I Read Last Week

Samantha Power is a solemnly intense, and deeply passionate humanitarian-focused diplomat.

Power has an incredible story, leaving Ireland at the age of nine to immigrate to the U.S. where she became a citizen at the age of 23.

Her memoir The Education Of An Idealist is filled with honest reflections and insight into the inner workings of presidential campaigns and international relations.

However, her road to diplomacy was an indirect one.

Leaving Yale with a History degree she made the decision to move across the globe to work as a reporter and cover the Yugoslav war.

During her time as a reporter, she was exposed firsthand to the realities and impacts of communism. She was also refreshingly honest about the unglamorous and often emotionally challenging parts of the experience, “There would come a moment in every interview where I would feel a rush of recognition. I have what I need and then would hasten to wind down the conversation. I would then begin to feel guilty for having invaded someone’s home and left.”

Beyond gaining an emphatic and genuine care for those suffering at the hands of others, this experience planted the seed from which Power’s strong convictions around the importance of identifying and naming genocide when it was occurring, something she later spends a surprising amount of time as the Special Assistant to the President prodding Obama to publically establish.

Power returns to the states, pursuing her J.D. degree at Harvard, and ends up working at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School where she leverages her expertise from covering firsthand the Bosnian war, and infamously the U.S. response which led to the largest wave of resignations over US policy in State Dept history. She created a summary of the people, culture, conflict, and facts in a booklet titled “Breakdown in the Balkans”. After printing numerous copies and promoting its circulation this book became a valuable summary for government aid – a brilliant example of taking knowledge and making it practical to those around you.

At one point she surfaces the story of a friend, and fellow journalist, who had been captured by some hostile groups abroad. As she tells the story of her captive friend and urges the U.S. to apply pressure on the hostile groups in an op-ed, she realizes that “An identifiable American life would almost always be more galvanizing than thousands of faceless foreigners in a faraway country” This observation was illuminating as to how Americans view international affairs.

After helping with Obama’s campaign, Power works in the Obama administration and encourages the use of more “tools” in the diplomatic toolbox, beyond military engagement, to prevent human rights abuse, like 1) public and private diplomacy 2) public shaming 3) negotiations 4) deploying intelligence 5) technical resources 6) arms embargo and 7) asset freezes. This approach resonated with me but I found there were scarce examples of these tools proving successful in the book.

This dynamic approach was a common thread in how Power approached international diplomacy, placing an emphasis on human consequences, not just security ones.

After a few years working at The Whitehouse, Obama asks Power to serve as the 28th United States Ambassador to the United Nations, something she’d been wanting for a while. Her interest in this position always struck me as odd given that early in the book one of her mentors stated “If the UN had been around in 1939 we’d all be speaking German ” and she seemed generally skeptical of global approaches. How she was able to resolve the inefficiencies (both moral and practical) of international government was unclear to me.

On a personal note, Power strongly portrays a loving mother who’s dedicated to the development of her children, while being very devoted to her responsibilities. And her relationship with her husband, 16 years her senior, is supportive and kind. I found it especially endearing to hear her describe whenever he would receive criticism in one of his articles or books, “it usually brought a smile to his face “I love this” I heard him say once “his points are devastating “”.

Overall, a worthwhile read. In closing, enjoy this quote, “What is it they say about the definition of insanity? We can’t only try diplomacy after countries have done what we want.”

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