Book Review: Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

Posted on August 3, 2020

Eleanor Smith

Eleanor Smith is a postgraduate student, studying MA Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Leeds with a special interest in atrocity prevention. She previously graduated from the University of Hull with a BA in War and Security Studies. @eleanorfs_

Having heard Samantha Power discuss her experience in the White House and her commitment to multilateralism on “Pod Save the World,” a podcast run by two of her former Obama administration colleagues, I was keen to read Power’s work and learn more about her.

Power’s, The Education of an Idealist, also appealed to me having previously read William J. Burns’, former US Secretary of State, The Back Channel. When reviewing The Back Channel, I commented on how unusual it was as a behind the scenes insight into the usually shrouded world of diplomacy. The Education of an Idealist goes one step further. Power provides an insight not only into the world of diplomacy but into the path she took to get there: from her home in Ireland, through losing her father, her life as a journalist in Bosnia, then her journey on to the White House and eventually the UN. Power’s book is therefore noteworthy not only as a window into the life of a foreign policy insider, but also as a guidebook for 20-somethings looking out into the world of work.

Power’s Journey: Outspoken Critic to Policy Insider

Beginning her career very much as a foreign policy outsider, a sports reporter for her college newspaper, Power first became interested in foreign policy after watching the now infamous ‘Tank Man’ episode in Tiananmen Square. Moving quickly into foreign policy, after interning at the Carnegie Endowment, Power went on to work as a freelance reporter in Bosnia reporting on the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.

Power’s time in Bosnia and her anguish over America’s laissez faire attitude towards human rights abuses fuelled her writing, including her Pulitzer prize winner A Problem from Hell, as well as her advocacy. After returning from Bosnia and attending law school, Power established herself as a frequent critic of US foreign policy and their all-in or all-out approach.

Unsurprisingly, this brought her to the attention of then Illinois Congressman Barack Obama. Power worked alongside Obama as a policy advisor and later became Director of Multilateral Affairs during his first term, and the US Ambassador to the UN in his second term.

During her time in the Obama administration, Power was not untouched by controversy; each of which she discusses with complete candour. First, her inexperience in the public eye showed itself in a mistimed and poorly considered “throwaway” comment on Hilary Clinton, Obama’s competitor for the Democratic nomination. Power was forced to resign from his campaign. Years later, Power’s close friend and former US Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke would organise an in-person reconciliation with Clinton as a wedding present.

Advocacy Fuelling Policy

Once within the White House, Power’s actions in calling for intervention in both Libya and Syria became controversial. As Director of Multilateral Affairs in 2011, when conflict broke out in Libya following the Arab Spring, Power advocated for action from within the US administration. While generally supported at the time, the NATO intervention in Libya has since been heavily criticised. In fact, Obama has discussed the failure to produce an exit strategy in Libya as one of his greatest mistakes in office. Despite this, Power stands by her position.

When faced with further consequences of the Arab Spring in Syria, at the very beginning of her UN tenure, Power attempted to advocate for similar action from the UN. She describes in great detail her interactions with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, and her frustration at the failure of Congress to authorise US military action; mirroring what she had seen in Bosnia almost two decades earlier. Power even goes so far as to suggest that US unilateral intervention may have gone ahead if it wasn’t for the presence of UN chemical weapons inspectors in Syria. The failure to intervene has, of course, since become an even greater controversy than the intervention in Libya.

Interestingly, at no point does Power discuss either the Libya intervention, or her hopes for US foreign policy, in terms of the principle of Responsibility to Protect, despite Libya being described as a turning point for the principle. It’s unlikely that this omission is accidental, Power after all was an advocate for US preventative and military action prior to the 2005 World Summit. It is more likely Power chose not to introduce such a principle to her readers when writing her memoir or, perhaps, she has simply grown used to avoiding reference to the principle which remains unevenly implemented, controversial or misunderstood.

Life Lessons from a UN Ambassador

Beyond her insights into the foreign policy formulation of the Obama administration and foreign policy execution at the UN, Power’s book provides valuable life lessons. While some of these lessons feel particularly relevant for me, as a young woman hoping to follow a similar career path, some are equally as relevant for those pursuing other career trajectories.

On advocacy, Power discusses the importance of “shrinking the change”; any large change is brought about through incremental efforts by dedicated groups of people across weeks or years. This quickly became her team’s mantra and Obama followed suit with the similar phrase ‘better is good’. Additionally, based on her experience in the UN, she advises her readers to meet people where they are. She also urges readers to address the reasonable concerns of critics, provide nuanced responses and work with them instead of against them.

In terms of greater valuable life lessons, Power talks about the importance of silencing your ‘Bat Cave’ – that space in your brain where self-doubting thoughts frantically scramble for attention. More often referred to as ‘Imposter Syndrome’, Power’s analogy is relatable to many, including me. Power’s advice is to silence those ‘bats’ by sharing your feelings with others.

Power also links her ‘bats’ to another life lesson: “Never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides”. Power describes the revelation that her female colleagues in the White House also struggled with falling into the same comparison trap and explains how much she gained from reaching out to other women within the administration, both personally, and professionally. Recognising the limited number of women within the White House, Power began “aggressively recruiting” women to her department and inviting them to her ‘Wednesday Group’ to share and support each other.

‘Lean On’ is Power’s greatest lesson – without it she says her career would have been impossible. Adapted from Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’, Power describes with great feeling the importance of her friends, family members and colleagues who helped in numerous ways; from silencing her inner critic, to caring for her children and supporting her move from Massachusetts to Washington and then to New York to take up her UN position.

Final Impressions

More than just an account of life in the Obama administration and at the UN, The Education of an Idealist is a guidebook for navigating life as an advocate, writer, mother, and woman in a position of power. It is as valuable for its political relevance as it is for its honesty and the life-lessons it provides. Power describes her relationship with Vitaly Churkin as evocatively as she describes her memories of her father, experiences in Bosnia and her heart break in North Africa, where her convoy was responsible for the death of a small child. The lessons she draws from her experiences are applicable in numerous aspects of life.

For a 23-year-old woman hoping for a future in advocacy and atrocity prevention, this book is exceptionally powerful. Power’s experience in the White House and at the UN, and the lessons she has learned trying to balance her idealist nature with the pragmatism required to succeed in governance, are enlightening. There is much we can learn from Power and translate to our own lives.

Book Review: Responsibility to Protect and the Failures of the United Nations Security Council by Patrick M. Butchard

Posted on July 11, 2020 

By Blake Lawrinson 

Blake Lawrinson is a PhD researcher in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. His thesis examines the changes and continuities in the UK’s commitment to human protection from mass violence and atrocity crimes (1997-2020). His research is funded by a Leeds Doctoral Scholarship (2017-2020).

Book Review: “Responsibility to Protect and the Failures of the United Nations Security Council” by Patrick M. Butchard. Oxford: Hart. 2020. 308pp. ISBN: 9781509930814.

‘Responsibility is a continuum, and it does not cease to exist with failure’ (p.269)

In the event of UN Security Council deadlock and paralysis, should we simply give up on implementing the responsibility to protect (R2P) populations from atrocity crimes? The UN Security Council’s response to the crisis in Syria (2011-) encapsulates this dilemma having failed to establish common ground on action after almost a decade of conflict. In Responsibility to Protect and the Failures of the United Nations Security Council, Patrick Butchard argues that R2P implementation does not end with such UN Security Council failure, but rather that this legal responsibility can transfer to other actors through a ‘tertiary responsibility to protect’ (pp.3-4).

This argument is constructed through a comprehensive analysis of the legality of alternative forms of forcible and non-forcible coercive measures beyond the UN Security Council. This is achieved by first, addressing the historical context and establishing the legal framework for the tertiary R2P (chapters 1-3); and second, examining the legality of forcible and non-forcible coercive measures and their implementation by other actors (chapters 4-6). According to the author, Article 2(4) of the UN Charter on the prohibition of the threat or use of force and Article 2(7) on non-intervention in the domestic affairs of a state are fundamental to locating the existing legal debates on intervention through the UN Security Council. Pre-R2P, debates focused on the legality of unilateral humanitarian intervention, which was witnessed more notably during the 1999 NATO-led action in Kosovo. The author is quick to debunk this ‘myth of humanitarian intervention’ (p.7), given the lack of support in both state practice and opinion juris (p.28). With unilateral humanitarian intervention failing to provide a credible legal avenue for protecting populations from atrocity crimes, focus then shifted to a reconfiguration of sovereignty as a responsibility through the R2P.

The author suggests that R2P has two core responsibilities contained in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. The first relates to a state’s primary responsibility to protect its population from the four crimes of genocide: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, and the international community’s responsibility to assist a state in preventing these crimes (pillars I and, respectively, pillar II). The second concerns the responsibility to take ‘timely decisive action’ through the UN Security Council to protect populations from these four crimes (pillar III) (p.3). But what happens when the UN Security Council fails to take such timely and decisive action? Does R2P simply end with UN Security Council inaction? According to the author, just because the UN Security Council fails this does not necessarily rule out legal R2P action from other actors as ‘there is no reason why it should not continue’ (p.4, emphasis in original). Such action beyond the UN Security Council thus constitutes a third responsibility in the form of the tertiary R2P.

Given that legal responsibility for the implementation of forcible and coercive measures under the R2P lies first and foremost with the UN Security Council, the first step in acting beyond this requires a connection between R2P and maintaining international peace and security (p.55). This is essential given that the R2P is not a legal doctrine, whilst maintaining international peace and security ‘is enshrined in international law – in the UN Charter – and brings with it the force of a duty, and not just an aspiration, to do something’ (p.266). Crucially, the author argues that the UN Security Council ‘does have a legal obligation to maintain international peace and security and, by extension, to protect populations from atrocity crimes covered by the R2P framework’ (p.84, emphasis added). This is a particularly convincing argument, since it establishes a potential legal avenue for actors to implement the R2P when the UN Security Council has failed (p.55). The only potential drawback in this instance is that this legal action would require actors to make a connection between R2P and maintaining international peace and security.

By establishing that there is a legal opportunity for the implementation of a tertiary R2P when (1) respecting the territorial integrity and political independence of a state; and (2) ‘it is consistent with the purposes of the United Nations’ under Article 2(4) (p.124), the author shifts the focus to considering the legal implementation of non-forcible coercive measures. This centres largely on the ‘doctrine of countermeasures’ when the state in question has committed atrocity crimes (p.125). Legal countermeasures may include economic sanctions as witnessed in the case of Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and in Myanmar in 2017 following the outbreak of mass atrocities (pp.172-178). An obvious limitation here, and one rightly acknowledged by the author, is that such legal countermeasures are only available after a state commits such acts. Moreover, since such actions do not involve direct forcible action, it is difficult to envisage whether this would help to directly prevent mass atrocities in the same way as timely and decisive action through the UN Security Council.

The real crux of the argument is addressed in the final chapter on the those responsible for implementing forcible and non-forcible coercive measures through the tertiary R2P. Two actors in particular are identified as having both the legal competence and capability for implementation. The first is the General Assembly, which has the power to implement the tertiary R2P through recommending the use of force. Such powers of recommendation are captured by the Uniting for Peace Resolution (1950), the use of which has been widely debated (Carswell, 2013; Kenny, 2016; Melling and Dennett, 2018; Nahlawi, 2019). However, there are three important qualifications on this power. First, this has to remain consistent with the principles outlined in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter; second, the General Assembly can only implement the R2P through establishing its relationship with the maintenance of international peace and security; third, any such recommendation requires a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly (p.230). Whilst acknowledging that the General Assembly ‘provides the best institutional legitimacy for such action’ (p.264), commanding the necessary political will and consensus are significant barriers to the implementation of the tertiary R2P through the General Assembly.

That said, the General Assembly does have the potential to implement non-forcible coercive measures, such as sanctions, by drawing on the doctrine of countermeasures. This again, however, is guided and limited by existing international law. Regional organisations, recognised in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, are the second actor with the legal competence to implement the tertiary R2P. Whilst legal forcible measures without prior UN approval would be illegal, the author finds room through the doctrine of countermeasures, which ‘provides a further legal basis for collective action’ (p.240). Again, however, the use of such measures requires consensus and political will from regional organisations to bypass the UN Security Council. This in turn has the potential to act as a major impediment to implementing the tertiary R2P.

The author openly acknowledges that the book ‘has not sought to offer simple solutions to complex problems’ (p.265). The author convincingly argues that there is in fact legal space to implement a tertiary R2P amid UN Security Council deadlock and paralysis. This is by no means an easy task, and to the author’s credit, they do not shy away from this. Rather, they provide an original contribution to contemporary debates on the implementation of the R2P in the context of UN Security Council politics. The real strength of the argument is how it does not simply cover the same ground as existing debates, such as the wealth of literature on the responsibility not to veto (Gifkins, 2012; Webb, 2014; Essawy, 2020), but attempts to set out a new trajectory for R2P implementation in the face of the same deadlock and paralysis witnessed more recently on Syria. Notably, the author recognises from the outset the importance of legality and draws on a wealth of knowledge of international law and the R2P to provide a comprehensive, and convincing, account on the alternatives to R2P action beyond the UN Security Council.

The real appeal of the book is how the author is able to summarise and apply detailed legal debates to practice on R2P. Whilst the author acknowledges their ‘disappointment’ that such a book is required given that ‘the body tasked with maintaining international peace and security too often fails to uphold its responsibilities’ (p.265), they do justice to the topic through providing a foundation for considering the legality of R2P action beyond the UN Security Council. This is an original account of such an important issue in the field and should be key reading for students, academics, and practitioners across the spectrum hoping to continue an exploration of legal alternatives for R2P implementation in the face of UN Security Council failure.

References 

Carswell, A.J. (2013) ‘Unblocking the UN Security Council: The Uniting for Peace Resolution’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 18(3), pp.453-480.

Essawy, R.M. (2020) ‘The Responsibility Not to Veto Revisited under the Theory of ‘Consequential Jus Cogens’, Global Responsibility to Protect, Advanced Access.

Gifkins, J. (2012) ‘The UN Security Council Divided: Syria in Crisis’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 4(3), pp.377-393.

Kenny, C. (2016) ‘Responsibility to recommend: the role of the UN General Assembly in the maintenance of international peace and security’, Journal on the Use of Force and International Law, 3(1), pp.3-36.

Melling, G. and Dennett, A. (2018) ‘The Security Council veto and Syria: responding to mass atrocities through the “Uniting for Peace” resolution’, Indian Journal of International Law. 57(3-4), pp.285-307.

Nahlawi, Y. (2019) ‘Overcoming Russian and Chinese Vetoes on Syria through Uniting for Peace’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 24(1), pp.111-143.

Webb, P. (2014) ‘Deadlock or Restraint? The Security Council Veto and the Use of Force in Syria’, Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 19(3), pp.471-488.