The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power. New York: Dey Street Books, 2021.
Summary: A memoir on immigrant-American, war correspondent, human rights activist, and diplomat Samantha Power.
Samantha Power has led an interesting life, by any measure. Born in Ireland, she emigrated with her mother Vera to the United States as a young girl, leaving an alcoholic father who eventually drank himself to death at a young age. She and her mother became naturalized citizens and Vera married Eddie, who provided not only the love but the stability she needed. She played basketball and ran cross country in high school and is an avid baseball fan. After graduating from Yale, she ended up as a freelance war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia, where she encountered the genocidal efforts against Bosnian Muslims, culminating in Srebenica. Returning to the U.S. she plunged into law school while doing the research on her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell, (review), a history of genocide in the 20th century.
She returned to Harvard, teaching at the Kennedy School for Government and serving as Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She left Harvard in 2005 for a one-year fellowship with then-Senator Barack Obama, helping shape his efforts to press for American intervention in Darfur. She campaigned for Obama, resigning at one point, when what she thought was an off-the-record conversation about Senator Clinton was published. She later joined his administrator on the National Security Council, where she served as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. In 2013, she was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, where she served until January 2017.
Leaving public office in 2017 afforded more time with her husband, legal scholar at Harvard, Cass Sunstein, and their two children, Declan and Rian as well as resuming teaching duties at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy. She returned to government in 2021 as the Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development.
The Education of an Idealist covers everything except for that last sentence. Fitting for an interesting life, Power tells an interesting story, an un-put-downable story at least for me. Beyond the curriculum vitae outlined above, we come to understand the shaping of a woman passionate in the pursuit of human rights and how she persisted when her passion ran up against political realities and limits. This is a woman who first of all knew both love and loss, and understood both the pain of feeling she’d abandoned a father, and the flourishing she experienced with her mother and step-father who were for her every step of the way. I was fascinated to learn that until about mid-way through her time at Yale, she was more interested in sports than international affairs. A European trip awakened her to genocide, oppression, and the fissures that would eventually erupt in Yugoslavia. An internship with Mort Abramowitz where she researched the Bosnian conflict led her to the adventure of trying to see that war up close as a war correspondent–setting the precedent for her commitment to get “on the ground” whenever she could to understand a crisis–whether the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the Ebola crisis, or even the missions of other U.N. ambassadors, who she visited rather than making them call on her.
The narrative is a story of a passion to save human lives, and to stand up for human flourishing, where ideals often ran up against reality. She learned how hard it is to do better. One senses her frustration when she thought she had a commitment from the President for U.S. intervention in Syria after Assad’s nerve gas attacks, only for him to backpedal and fail to secure Senate support. She learned to do what could be done, negotiating protocols with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons. We see her frustration when political realities with Turkey prevent Obama from naming atrocities against the Armenians a century ago genocide. And we see how hurtful accusations against her could be when she had fought for the very things she was accused of not doing.
Part of the narrative is how she found strength in fostering community with other women both in her own government, and with women ambassadors at the UN. One of her last acts was to call attention to twenty women being held as political prisoners. Her efforts, and the political pressure applied, resulted in the release of 14 before she left office. They also, along with her live-in nanny, Maria, help her wrestle with the tension of high-level government service and parenting, and the unavoidable tradeoffs this involves.
Perhaps in light of the present situation with Russia and Ukraine, Power devoted her last speech at the UN to warning the world of the efforts of Russia to sow havoc, whether supporting Assad’s genocidal efforts to eliminate his opposition, the ruthless annexation of Crimea from Ukraine (bite by bite?), and the interference in American elections. I admire the fire with which she spoke:
“Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”
Power also reminds us of the difference immigrants make in our country, whether herself as an Irish naturalized US citizen, or the Turkish immigrant who founded Chobani Yogurt or her nanny Maria, to whom she administered the oath of citizenship. Her passion for refugees energized her efforts to get those “in the pipeline” settled as the doors were closing.
The one question that Power fails to wrestle with is the tension between human rights advocacy and the question of whether there are limits to what any given government can or should do. These are the realities her idealism bumps up against. Given the unique place of America in the world, should vigorous international human rights advocacy be a cardinal doctrine of our foreign policy, and should this be backed with American military force if necessary? This seems implicit in Power’s advocacy, but this is not defended, and so foreign policy seems to end up a patchwork of idealism and realpolitik. Power’s resort at the end is that if we cannot change the world, then we change the smaller and individual worlds we can. That may be a good personal response, but is it sufficient for governments?
That said, this is a memoir and not a foreign policy treatise. In addition to a riveting read, I am grateful for the example of someone who does not give way to cynicism or despair, who works for the possible when the ideal eludes one. The importance of bedrock convictions, the support of a strong, loving family, and finding community are lessons from Power’s life in how to sustain one’s ideals, even as one is “educated” to the realities that bump up against the ideal. Hopefully it will help inspire a new generation, including many women, to the public service for the common good which has always been vital to the health of our country and our world.