Samantha Power at the UN: Time for Change?


This is no longer big news, but it certainly made the headlines at the beginning of the week: National Security Council advisor Samantha Power is headed to the United Nations. This is an institution she knows well, as President Obama emphasized. As the American ambassador to the UN she will now represent her country at the Security Council, which could lead to major changes if she is able to think outside the U.S.’ “traditional” lines and call for stronger engagement.

Power has long been a vocal advocate of human rights, particularly in terms of humanitarian assistance, genocide and mass atrocity prevention. (Conservative) radio and TV host Glenn Beck once described her as having “an institutional memory bank on genocide.” This is certainly true. Her book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, was widely acclaimed, especially in liberal circles. In her book, she heavily condemns America’s (and the world’s) failure to prevent genocide and mass atrocities in places such as Armenia, Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Cambodia. Since then Power has been a notable advocate of intervention and strong engagement when civilians are faced large-scale human rights abuses. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, described Power as “the foremost voice for human rights within the White House and she has Obama’s ear.” Her book certainly played an important role in the way I view foreign policy.

As a freelancer and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine and The New Yorker, she knows what she is talking about. She has seen the results of inaction. She has seen the horrors of the Balkans, and also reported on Sudan and Rwanda. Mass atrocities are therefore not an abstract concept to her, which, I think, makes her quite unique in the world she works in. She also knows that governments and international organizations are complicated systems dominated by self-interest and geopolitical considerations.

Power is a woman of action, not of endless debates, hollow statements, and daft bureaucracy. Though I was quite disappointed by her overall record, under the Obama administration, she did take the lead on human rights issues. She was able to convince President Obama to set up a no-fly zone in Libya in order to protect civilians, she pushed the White House to take interest in Darfur (though not enough), and she called for action against the Lord’s Resistance Army. Regarding the intervention in Libya, she stated that a failure to establish a no-fly zone would have been “extremely chilling, deadly and indeed a stain on our collective conscience.” Then she also pushed the administration to address genocide prevention by helping to create and by chairing Obama’s new Atrocities Prevention Board (APB). Although the APB still has to show real results, the creation of the Board itself was a crucial step toward genocide and mass atrocity prevention.

Could Samantha Power’s nomination lead to a change in policy on Syria and other far-away places that the US and the international community often try to put on the backbench? This is difficult to say. By now, there is no good solution on Syria, just one that it less bad than others. At the Security Council Power will represent the White House’s foreign policy but Obama remained elusive when referring to what Power’s nomination would mean to US foreign policy: “”She knows that American interests are advanced when we can rally the world to our side. And she knows that we have to stand up for the things that we believe in. And to ensure that we have the principled leadership we need at the United Nations, I would strongly urge the Senate to confirm her without delay.” “American interests”, “things that we believe in” and “leadership”? These are vague concepts with ever-changing meanings depending of interests at stake.

But her nomination is a sign of hope. First, She may no have a career as a diplomat but this is perhaps what is needed as well. Plus, as a member of the Obama administration, I believe that she learned the difficulties and limits of policymaking. Second, she is a careful interventionist because as much as she defends the security of civilians, she always knows that intervention can backfire and make matters worse if they are not carefully thought over. As she stated herself “(…) any intervention is going to come under fierce criticism, but we have to think about lesser evils, especially when the human stakes are just becoming ever more pronounced.”

She is an able and knowledgeable activist who may be able to bring important policy changes by suggesting alternative pathways. Even Senator John McCain, who has been urging the US to arm Syrian rebels, believes in her capabilities and welcomed her nomination. My main concern is whether she will be able to be heard and if she will have the ability and capacity to reconcile her believes, American interests and the self-interested nations that sit at the Security Council. If this is the case, she may be able to take decisive action.




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