As an orientation to the world, “idealism” can elicit both praise and derision. Because it is more of an attitude than a comprehensive worldview, many persons can abide idealism in the young, while expecting it to be jettisoned when a certain level of maturity is attained. What, then, should one make of the title of Samantha Power’s latest book, The Education of an Idealist? Does the author see herself as an idealist? Or did this label come from friends and colleagues? Finally, how does an “idealist” become the US ambassador to the United Nations at the tender age of 42?
While not being indifferent to the questions just posed, I approached Power’s book with others at the forefront of my mind. The other questions arose some years ago when reading her first book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (2002). Despite its moral passion and the critical acclaim that it garnered, “A Problem from Hell” suffered from a lack of theoretical reflection and a dearth of arguments.
In her critique of US foreign policy, Power held that our nation was morally culpable for not doing more in the twentieth century to stop massive human rights violations around the globe, including several instances of genocide. Few would dispute her view that the formidable military and economic strength of the United States made it possible for our nation to do more. But why was our nation obliged to do more? Essentially ignoring this question, she made a series of appeals to her readers, appeals resting on emotions rather than arguments. Even the book’s epigraph, taken from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln (“We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility”), failed to suggest how the United States acquired this obligation.
I approached The Education of an Idealist hoping that it would fill some of the lacunae in “A Problem from Hell”.But the new book falls short. It is something of an autobiography, giving much attention to her four years at the United Nations (2013–17), and it takes up many substantive issues. But gaps in Power’s thinking are still evident, some of them as puzzling as those found in “A Problem from Hell”.
The gaps might be explained by Power’s cast of mind, which is practical, not theoretical. Ordinarily, a public official’s mental makeup is not grounds for reproach, but in view of the positions that she espouses, some adeptness at moral or political theory would seem necessary if she wants to persuade others of the rightness of her views. Because Power does not try to defend humanitarian military interventions on religious grounds (more on this later), a straightforward defense would need to use the language of either moral or political theory. Despite earning a BA in history from Yale and a JD from Harvard, she seems averse to theoretical questions about interventions. Her aversion is regrettable because of the rich literature on the topic, including works by J.S. Mill, Michael Walzer, and others. She knows this literature from a course in law school (pp.119-122), but the reader sees scant evidence of its influence on her.
Instead, Power comes across as a compassionate person with generous impulses, inclined to favor the underdog. These attributes, however, cannot by themselves determine policy on the question of humanitarian military interventions. Many Americans have similar impulses, but they do not believe that the United States has a special burden to rescue every vulnerable group whenever their basic rights are in danger of being violated. In Power’s worldview, little seems fixed or well-grounded, with many tasks likely to be taken up ad hoc, depending on what seems right or urgent at a given moment. Everyone involved in shaping foreign policy must allow for surprises and contingencies in international affairs, but her preoccupation with massive human rights violations suggests that she might have done better by becoming a prosecutor at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, a career track she considered in her twenties (103).
Difficult theoretical questions about humanitarian interventions can be dodged or sidestepped by asserting that gross human rights violations abroad always implicate vital interests of the United States. In some places, Power affirms this view (268), but elsewhere she is more guarded (220). But the stronger version of this view is untenable. Recent massacres in places like Somalia (1992) and Rwanda (1994) did not implicate vital American interests, even though they touched the conscience of many Americans.
Believing that gross human rights violations always implicate our strategic interests could affect American foreign policy in worrisome ways. That belief would seemingly provide a warrant for all kinds of initiatives, including armed interventions abroad. Alternatively, the initiatives might only mean that our leaders are expected to become much more vocal about human rights violations whenever they occur. But elevating human rights discourse in this way could affect our interactions with other great powers, possibly for the worse.
Consider Russia. Power criticizes post-Soviet Russia and Vladimir Putin for many things, especially in the realm of human rights, and some of her criticisms are valid. But on several topics, she is poorly informed, and even when she makes a valid criticism, she tends to make feeble efforts to understand the Russian viewpoint and Russia’s behavior as a state. More serious efforts are needed because Russia remains a formidable power with a large arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Although Power would dismiss the notion, many Russians have in recent years believed that Western nations, especially the United States, are seeking to arrange Putin’s ouster by a coup, possibly to be preceded by uprisings in Russia orchestrated by the West. These Russians often cite the steady eastward expansion of NATO since the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a prelude to something more sinister. Russian troops have prepared for this possibility by engaging in military exercises, and NATO forces have followed suit, sometimes near Russia’s border, escalating tensions.
Power does not want to discuss these matters, and her omissions are telling. Such a passionate advocate of human rights would do well to acknowledge that a war between Russia and the United States (or between Russia and NATO) would jeopardize the most basic human right of all—the right to life—for millions of people.
In a similar way, Power’s analysis is notably weak when assessing the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In her account, Ukraine is a Western liberal democracy in embryo, whose failure to gestate properly in recent years can be blamed wholly on Russia. But her account includes so many distortions and half-truths about Ukraine and its history that it would take too much space to catalog them here. (Interested readers might wish to consult the writings published from 2014 to 2018 by the respected journalist Robert Parry.)
Early in her book, Power concedes that she moved from being an “outsider” when writing “A Problem from Hell” to an “insider” when working in the Obama administration for eight years. This change in status is reflected in the predictability of her views on certain matters now that she is on the “inside.” The least interesting parts of this broadly engaging book are those in which the author says precisely what her readers would expect her to say on topics such as Libya, sundry Republicans, and her reputation for hawkishness in foreign policy.
Having noted Power’s transition from “outsider” to “insider,” let us also note that The Education of an Idealist was likely written to aid its author in obtaining some coveted position the next time a Democrat resides in the White House. Whatever else it may be, the book is an apologia, composed by someone not yet on the sidelines, and still very much in the game.
In making this point, I am not questioning Power’s sincerity or integrity. Like any public official, she has a right to defend her views and the decisions that she made while holding an important office. But if Power is convinced that the United States has a moral duty to stop massive human rights violations, and if she wants more Americans to recognize and accept that duty, she needs to understand the limitations of her book. It is apt to resonate only with those who share her views, and it is worth asking why.
After a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012, Power criticized her for being a bad listener, “an alarming quality in a leader” (317). But this book only gives evidence of Power’s ability to listen selectively. There are certain viewpoints that she does not want to consider or explore, some of them identified above.
As another example, save for a reference to the “globalized economy” (535), she seems uninterested in understanding why many Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016. This is both understandable and regrettable: understandable because Trump rejects much that is important to Power, regrettable because she needs to think about how to reach these voters if she wants to help people in desperate circumstances around the globe.
Power has considerable gifts as a storyteller, and her talent helps to explain why many readers found “A Problem from Hell” compelling. She links the cultivation of this gift to her childhood in the Republic of Ireland, where the ability to tell a good story is highly esteemed. But the ability to tell a good story is different from the ability to persuade others on questions of policy, and Power seems weak in the latter realm.
What kind of argument or narrative would be needed to make the American people more receptive to military interventions on humanitarian grounds? This is a question about rhetoric, and a satisfactory answer to it requires much attention to one’s audience. But that audience might now be much harder to persuade on this issue. For much of our history, one could have—and surely would have—invoked biblical themes and verses from scripture to make the case that Power wants to make. But those days are gone, and few persons in the Democratic Party rue their passing.
Readers of The Education of an Idealist will learn that Power prays regularly, identifies as Roman Catholic, and was married in 2008 in a Catholic church in Ireland. At the same time, she expresses strong support for contraception, abortion, and LGBT rights, and she seems to count Gloria Steinem as one of her heroes. It is therefore hard to know what her identity as a Catholic means to her and whether Catholic social teaching informs her views on any public policies. She does not, alas, take up these matters in the book.
Power still needs to reckon with the emergence of a secular worldview in the United States. As I previously argued in this journal, broad support for humanitarian intervention seems to require accepting some version of “Samaritanism,” rooted in some claims of religious truth that many people could endorse, even those who are not religiously observant. Such a grounding is necessary because the philosophic attempts to vindicate these interventions have thus far been unavailing.
The lack of success in these philosophic endeavors is unsurprising. As the avowedly secular political theorist George Kateb reminds us, most of our civic duties in a liberal democracy are “abstentionist,” meaning that we are expected to abstain from meddling with the life, liberty, and property of others. Beyond that requirement, we have few affirmative duties, save to pay our taxes every year, report for jury duty if summoned, and fill out a census form once a decade.
Power may dislike the thinness of liberal-democratic citizenship, but it is hardly new. Hence the questions: Why assume that an increasingly secular American people are going to embrace these costly humanitarian projects across the globe? Why should they embrace them? How do they benefit?
Perhaps Power’s “idealism” consists in the preservation of hope—specifically, the hope that our increasingly secular nation will be ready to make great sacrifices for strangers around the globe. But it seems like a forlorn hope, even more so now, in the wake of widespread protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Today, many Americans are likely to say that the work of the Civil Rights Movement remains unfinished, and if the protests are harbingers of sustained commitments, our nation may turn inward and channel most of its civic energy to domestic matters, implying less engagement with international human rights.
I point this out, even while believing that the United States in rare circumstances is obliged to protect or rescue the desperate, wherever they may live. But the area of my agreement with Samantha Power doesn’t go much beyond this.