Book Review: Power on the Nature of Power

Tarek Osman , Thursday 28 May 2020

Power on the Nature of Power
Power on the Nature of Power

Young, smart, articulate, and beautiful, Samantha Power had a sizeable following. As the US’s Ambassador at the United Nations, she used her stardom to give American diplomacy a humane face. It was apt, for she was the personification of the argument that human rights must have primacy in determining the actions of global powers, particularly at moments when the lives of tens if not hundreds of thousands of people are at stake. 

Power gave us a detailed view of her argument in her Pulitzer-winner book: “A Problem from Hell”. It began as an account of the Balkan war which she had covered on the ground, and evolved into an elaborate view of the conditions and circumstances in which global powers, primarily the US, must intervene to defend the victims of mass race-and-identity-based killing. Her account went beyond the ‘when’ and ‘why’ to the ‘how’, detailing a set of escalating measures the US ought to undertake in such cases. 

But when a moment that she thinks fits the bill came, Samantha Power found herself unable to use her position at the UN’s National Security Council to put forward her argument. She was compelled to swallow her words, for the administration she served in – Barack Obama’s - had decided to effectively sit still, not to attempt to avert the tragedy that was unfolding in Syria, particularly at the time when that tragedy was exacting the lives of (at least) tens of thousands and displacing millions of people. 

Power was not just disappointed; she was disillusioned, partly with the president she was serving and whom she had known well as a senator and presidential candidate; but more importantly she was disillusioned with the idea of power. After all, what really drew her from the comforts of academic life at Harvard to the machinations of Washington DC was the desire to “be on the inside”: to see how power was used - and for a woman of Power’s energy, to influence how power was used. 

She failed. By her account, she was effectively marginalised, despite having a seat at the table when some of the most important foreign policy decisions were made. Obama told her, apparently more than once, that “she gets on his nerves”. 

But she remained on “the inside”. She neither rebelled against his decisions which she clearly disagreed with, nor did she take a decisive move to distance herself from these decisions: resign. 

She tells us why in her latest book: “The Education of an Idealist”. She does not spell it out, but we can trace the thread of thinking in the events, conversations, reflections, and moments of torment. Deep down, she knew that being there on the inside was an education for her. She remained “in” so that she can continue to witness as she had done in the Balkans twenty years earlier. And as a witness, she was to return another day to tell what had happened. 

As an account of foreign policy decision making within the Obama administration, particularly with regard to Syria, the book checks the expected boxes. It gives us the key milestones (from the perspective of an American diplomat); looks at power dynamics, whether in the region or with international actors (mainly Russia); and presents lucidly the different angles that went into the making of America’s final decisions. But Samantha Power’s account here is neither the most comprehensive nor the most thrilling. 

However, the brilliance of this book is in exactly what it says on the cover. It takes us through the education of Samantha Power. We see the conflicts inside her mind between the opposing view-points, the clashing of perspectives and rationales, and indeed the torment, and often the guilt that lurk at the back recesses of the mind, and that often jump to the fore, stirred by conversations with activists who expected her - the idealist – to champion their cause, and to deliver. The book shows us the evolution of the journalist and the academic into something else, certainly neither a scheming politician nor a decisive decision-maker, but perhaps an observer with unrestricted access to the inner rooms. 

Having been on the inside, debated, argued, got on the nerves of the most powerful man on earth, and failed to convince him of her argument is the gist of many pages in this book. That cycle, repeated several times, is the educational process that Samantha Power had undergone. Those who have read “A Problem from Hell’ will, indeed, notice the difference not only in tone and pace from these in “The Education of an Idealist”; they will also notice the maturity of perspective. Like with any good education, Samantha Power’s entailed inner growth. 

Some readers might detect a stream of cynicism or a big dose of resignation. But these are mere outer layers, under which there are the lessons of the education: a recognition that modern political power is almost always limited; often it is embroiled in compromises between what is moral and what is expedient; rarely does morality win; and that not much could be done about that. 

Samantha Power is a courageous author. She admirably takes us on a stroll in dark alleys of her mind, where questions are raised, many answers offered, often for all to be left hanging, compelling the readers to contemplate and reflect. Many readers will find themselves, like Samantha Power, having left the comforts of watching from afar, seeing the situation “from the inside”, and indeed wondering about the limits and nature of power. The education of Samantha Power is an education of many a discerning reader.  

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