Power Play: US Foreign Policy under United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power

Maximilian Curtis

Source: US Mission to Geneva, Eric Bridiers on Flickr

Photo Source: US Mission to Geneva via Flickr.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power argued that the United States has the responsibility to intervene when genocide is committed abroad, and she denounced the US government for its reluctance to combat or even condemn genocide. “When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk,” she wrote, “it has a duty to act.”

Power keenly observed that when it matters most, the United States often lacks the will to act, mostly because it continues to “frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the marines.” Her ascendant career in US foreign policy is defined by a willingness to consider the nuanced approaches that lie between.

When she wrote her landmark book in 2002, Power was a professor at Harvard, far outside the Beltway. By 2008, however, she was advising Senator Obama’s presidential campaign, where her usual outspokenness on issues of human rights translated poorly to a more delicate campaign environment. Power resigned from the campaign after offhandedly referring to Senator Hillary Clinton as a “monster” during an interview with The Scotsman, but she soon returned as a close advisor to President Obama.

At the National Security Council, she was the Power behind the throne of US foreign policy. She built institutions and promoted norms designed to recognize LGBT rights as human rights, fought to reverse the Bush administration’s boycott of the UN Human Rights Council, and helped develop a consensus in the White House for intervention in Libya. Since her confirmation as US ambassador to the United Nations back in August 2013, Power has employed the sort of nuanced approaches she had promised a decade earlier, but the results have been mixed.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), the ousting of President Bozizé by Séléka rebels in March 2013 has resulted in sectarian violence and the internal displacement of a quarter of the population. Ambassador Power has played a substantial role in shifting the American response away from traditional negotiation and humanitarian aid—a strategy that Power herself might characterize as essentially “doing nothing.” The Atrocities Prevention Board, whose formation she directed during her stint at the National Security Council, had kept a close eye on human rights developments in the CAR, quietly persuading the foreign policy establishment that the prevention of mass atrocities there is a core national security interest for the United States.

When events escalated late last year, that establishment had been mobilized to take action, in large part due to Ambassador Power’s influence. “It’s Samantha almost entirely that is moving the government response,” the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s policy director told Foreign Affairs. In December, the United States co-sponsored France’s UN Security Council resolution for an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission led by French soldiers in the CAR, and the US has since committed $100 million in military support. Rather than “doing nothing,” the international response has been far more akin to “sending in the marines”. The Pentagon airlifted Burundian troops into the CAR on behalf of an emergency request from France, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently called for the global community to reinforce the AU mission with another 3,000 soldiers and police.

Source: The US Embassy in New Delhi, Flickr

Photo Source: The US Embassy in New Delhi via Flickr.

The American response to the CAR situation has not solely relied on military intervention. Ambassador Power recently visited the capital of Bangui and met with local religious leaders in an effort to promote reconciliation. “The worry now,” she told NPR, “is that they are thinking about themselves as Central African Muslims, or Central African Christians, and that is a very new dynamic, and one when coupled with insecurity and fear, can be very combustible.” She arrived with $15 million in humanitarian aid, which will be needed in the countryside where revenge killings are rampant.

Confronting conflict in the Central African Republic will be a long and difficult process, and one that international intervention may not be prepared to resolve. However, whereas before it had relied almost exclusively on diplomacy and aid, the United States is now comprehensively exploring its potential range of foreign policy options. It may not seem like much, but Ambassador Power has certainly had an impact in convincing US officials that this range exists and must be considered.

Ambassador Power and her colleagues have had far less influence behind the scenes when it comes to Syria. Traditional diplomacy has moved forward in fits and starts, but with Russia and the Assad government refusing to consider transitioning power, international efforts have failed to produce results. UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi recently apologized to the Syrian people when the second round of Geneva talks ended without progress. In her book, Power argued that a lack of political will is the only serious constraint on US foreign policy; in Syria, she has discovered practical constraints set by global politics and a harsh reality on the ground. Yet in spite these constraints, the UN Security Council managed to unanimously approve a resolution that will improve access for aid convoys across Syria.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from Ambassador Power’s tenure so far is that global governance must go beyond the United Nations, although it remains the focal point for international cooperation. The Security Council, where most of the big decisions are made, no longer reflects the global distribution of power and has been ineffective at managing problems that require international solutions. With an increasing plurality of multilateral bodies tackling various transnational issues, the United States could do more to take advantage of this range of institutions. If the United Nations is doing nothing, there may be other avenues that allow for action. In the long term, however, figures such as Power must be prepared to push for changes to the UN and its Security Council in order to maintain legitimacy and compliance.

“Panacea” is a word often used to deride the efforts of those who, like Power, try to find solutions to global problems. Ambassador Power’s approach to US foreign policy has demonstrated that this derision is unfounded. International cooperation may lurch forward and struggle to resolve difficult issues, but doing nothing is far from a panacea. Nevertheless, although Power has demonstrated that US political will is central to international diplomacy, she and her colleagues must begin to acknowledge that the United States faces other constraints besides the will to act.

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