The Education of an Idealist
Samantha Power (William Collins, £20/€25)
Felix M. Larkin
Samantha Power knows how to tell a story well, and what a story she has to tell in this autobiography. Born in London in 1970 to Irish parents – a dentist and a medical doctor – and raised in Ireland until she was nine, she was brought to the US by her mother when her parents’ marriage broke up.
After studying at Yale, she became a war correspondent in former Yugoslavia and won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, A Problem from Hell, about the failures of US foreign policy in response to genocide – inspired by, but not limited to, her experience in former Yugoslavia.
Anxious to do more than just report on humanitarian issues from the sidelines, she then took a law degree at Harvard and specialised in international human rights law.
She was recruited by the newly-elected Senator Barack Obama as a foreign policy advisor in the mid-2000s. She famously had to step aside from his 2008 presidential campaign when, in an indiscreet aside during a press interview, she referred to Hillary Clinton as “a monster”. She deals with this incident at some length in her book; clearly, it was an important lesson in her “education” as a player, rather than an observer, in the political game.
She served in the National Security Council in the White House during Obama’s first term as President, and then as US Ambassador to the United Nations in his second term.
In both roles, she lobbied for a more interventionist foreign policy approach by the US to combat human rights abuses than President Obama was prepared to countenance – especially in Syria. A sizeable part of her book is, therefore, a discussion about when it is right to compromise on individual issues and sacrifice the purity of one’s principles in order to maintain one’s influence in regard to other, often more general, matters. Navigating a path through these trade-offs was another element in Power’s “education”, and inevitably it was a messy process.
She is generous in sharing her life experiences in all their complexity and richness”
Serving at the UN – and participating in what Conor Cruise O’Brien called its “sacred drama” – was the perfect job for Power, giving her a platform from which to express and pursue her ideals in a forum that still has unrivalled moral authority. She does not hesitate to record her achievements there.
For instance, who could forget her confrontation with her Russian opposite number at a Security Council meeting when, in relation to the siege of Aleppo, she asked of him: “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? …Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?” The idealist triumphed at such moments.
But this is also a human story – exploring the traumas of her childhood, but also her happy marriage to the distinguished academic Cass Sunstein and the birth of their two children, and the effort to combine motherhood with her high-profile and demanding career in government.
She is generous in sharing her life experiences in all their complexity and richness: the personal as well as the public; the failures and regrets, as well as the successes.
This book is much more than an apologia for what she did or didn’t do.