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Samantha Power on Diplomacy

by Stephen Kaye
Sun Jul 31st, 2016

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books ( August 18, 2016) carries an article taken from a speech of Samantha Power made at the American Academy in Berlin in June at which she was given the Henry Kissinger Prize by Dr. Kissinger himself.  Like any speech of a sitting member of the Cabinet, it bears a close reading, all the more so since Ms. Power is a leading candidate to become our next Secretary of State. She is currently the U.S. Ambassador to the UN. 

Her central thesis is that our diplomacy should do more than take in the official relations with a government; it should also take into consideration “how our policies have an effect on---and are seen by ---people who live in other states.”     

As an example, she cites how our policy of helping then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, whose sectarian, corrupt, and abusive rule directed against the  Sunni population, undermined our own security when Sunni’s (as a result) supported the terrorist regime of ISIS.  

She argues that diplomats should not only know the government of the country to which they are assigned, but should rub shoulders with the people in order to assess public opinion.  

She recognizes that agreements between governments can’t solve the problems we must address, like global warming and outbreaks of disease.   We must be able to understand public opinion in the countries with whom we have diplomatic relations; we must have some idea of how the people look at the United States and its policies.  At the same time, she also realizes that public opinion in many countries under despotic rule is manipulated by a controlled media, a condition she laments but for which she offers no remedy. 

She urges our that diplomacy be an instrument of advocating for a free press, human rights, and public expression, although she seems to recognize that in countries like Russia, China, Myanmar, and Cuba such efforts might be rewarded with an exit visa.  Yet, she says our own security depends on how people in other states are treated; their sense of security affects our own.  If stability is a goal of diplomacy, then we must be aware of sources that create instability.  She implies, however, that our role might be extended to address the sources of instability.    

Reading between the lines, she seem to be criticizing our policies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Iraq, for failing to take into consideration how our policies are perceived by factions other than the controlling elite.  Is this strange coming from an insider who sat in on many if not most of the foreign policy decisions made by the Obama government? 

Does she think senior diplomats can go wandering around in countries with autocratic governments asking people who might be in opposition sensitive policy questions?  We tried that in Cuba with the result our diplomats were briskly ejected and their confidants briskly jailed.  The same things would and does happen in China.  Isn’t what she is asking the function of the CIA, which is expected to do undercover work to ascertain public opinion on sensitive questions?   Well before the invasion of Iraq, the NY Times reported that our invasion of that country would be considered hostile, even by people who liked the U.S. and hated Saddam Hussein.  Ordinary citizens said they would take up arms to fight the U.S. if we invaded.  We invaded and they did. Did the CIA make similar reports?  Apparently not. The problem may not be diplomatic, but intelligence.  Power didn’t mention intelligence.  

The article does establish Ms. Power as a senior diplomat aware of how our policies can backfire when public opinion abroad is either ignored or misunderstood.  Perhaps the classic case is Donald Rumsfeld’s prediction that our invasion would be welcomed as liberators.  She is unlikely to make the same mistake. But she has not entirely abandoned the notion that the U.S. has an obligation to intervene in foreign countries to protect the human rights of citizens of that country, either through diplomacy, or military action, as we did in Libya.  She seems not to be guided by our disastrous history of interventions that should discredit the notion; rather, she clings to a high moral purpose that historically has not been a tool of preachers, not diplomats.