Former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power writes that her motto has been "show, don't tell."
Her new memoir, The Education of an Idealist, tries to show how she stayed true to her idealism, her belief that she could a make a difference for the better. However, the story she tells is much more complicated.
Power — previously a war correspondent who covered the former Yugoslavia — had a quick rise, in part, owing to her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. It caught the eyes of many, including then-Sen. Barack Obama. The book looked into why the U.S. stands idly by in the face of mass atrocities. Then, her answer was because American leaders did not want to act. That book and the questions it posed hang over her memoir and the foreign-policy challenges she addresses, including the Obama administration's Syria policy.
As a young college graduate, Power read about four U.S. diplomats who resigned in protest over the weak U.S. response to the Bosnian War. She wrote in her journal at the time, "My only regret is that I don't work at the State Department so I can quit to protest policy. Instead, I sit impotent and incapable." So how did that young woman stay when others, like former Amb. Robert Ford, resigned over the Obama administration's Syria policy? She describes the use of chemical weapons in Syria as one of the "most diabolical atrocities carried out since the Rwandan genocide." She tells us she was in favor of a military attack; she tells us that she argued for more U.S. action. She tells us that she, and others, did not alter Obama's mind or U.S. policy. She says that when she would learn about a new massacre, "I'd often closed my office door and prayed for those begging for rescue, appealing also for wisdom as to how I could help." (Sounds a lot like thoughts and prayers.) She even tells a story of how, when she called Arizona Sen. John McCain to try to get him to lift a hold he had put on a nomination, he harangued her about Syria and yelled at her to resign before hanging up on her.
One thing most diplomats have to face at some point in their career is what to do when faced with U.S. policy they do not agree with and cannot change. Stay and pick your wins where you can? Move to a different office where you don't have to defend a policy you don't agree with? Resign — publicly or privately?
The young Power would have quit. The Power who wrote the memoir stayed. She writes she would do a gut check every couple of months: Is President Obama still listening to me? Am I making a difference in other areas? If I left, would it make any difference?
She keeps true to her idealistic nature, not by changing the world but by focusing on the changes she can make. As she puts it, changing "many individual worlds." She would pick her battles and then she would fight them. This is Power showing how she tried to make the world better. (There are a lot of frantic calls, feverish writing, furious diplomacy, etc.). It ranges from highlighting the plight of female political prisoners through the #Freethe20 campaign to helping mobilize the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
When Russia tried to stop the U.N. from granting same-sex couples the same benefits as heterosexual couples, Power and the mission worked hard to block Russia. When they succeeded, Power told the team: "We won ... because we cared more and we worked harder. Never forget how much that can matter." It's a great platitude, but her memoir also shows a person can care more and work harder and still get U.S. policy that is weak, unsuccessful or wrong, like Syria, Ukraine, Crimea or Yemen (one of this century's worst humanitarian disasters, beginning under the Obama administration, which barely gets a mention in the book).
Power gives an example of a change she made on her own that had a larger impact, though. She was instructed to support Russia as it sought a seat on the Human Rights Council. She didn't agree, but permanent members support each other in these types of votes as "a courtesy." She defied her instructions and did not vote for Russia, which lost by two votes (one vote short of a tie). She sees this as a victory, considering Russia's dismal human-rights record. However, her stand rings hollow. It was a secret ballot and she cast the vote when she thought Russia was going to win regardless. She changed no minds in government; she did this on her own when there would be no consequences.
At times, this memoir feels a mile wide and inch deep. But when she does really dig down, you get a better sense of who Power is — a flawed, complicated and complex human being like the rest of us. She opens up about her anxiety, stemming from the early loss of her alcoholic father, her attempts at therapy, her early frustrations in both then-Sen. Obama's office and then at the National Security Council. She opens up about her troubles conceiving children and her four miscarriages, between the births of her son and, eventually, her daughter. Like many women, she struggled to find work-life balance. For her, it seems that work usually won out.
Power may have reached the highest levels of government during the Obama administration, but that didn't stop her from thinking of herself as an activist. When the Mexican ambassador to the U.N. told her she had to choose between being a diplomat or an activist, she replied that she is both — that "we should all be both." This memoir, however, shows and tells a different reality. She is an idealist, but now with realistic expectations for what governments and the people making policy decisions can — or cannot — achieve.
Caitlyn Kim is the Washington, D.C., reporter for Colorado Public Radio. She worked as a U.S. diplomat from 2013-2018, serving in Estonia, Pakistan and D.C.