Posted on August 3, 2020
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.
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.