The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir (2019) by Samantha Power from Dey Street Books.
In the course of this 552-page memoir, I went from not knowing who Samantha Power was to placing her on my short list of highly admired persons. Her book first came to my attention on April 16 of 2020, as Audible’s “Daily Deal.” I remember reading the book’s description and wavering… should I or shouldn’t I? I’m so glad I did. By the way, I really enjoyed hearing Power read her own story. She has a good voice and, as it is a very personal retrospective, it’s nice to hear the emotional shadings that she gives to different passages. On the other hand, she is a fine writer, and part of that aspect may best be appreciated in print. No wrong choice, other than to not get the book at all.
Let me comment on what I consider to be the book’s chief categories of interest.
Fascinating Personal Story
The first line in a Samantha Power bio will mostly likely mention that she was President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations during his second term. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (2003). In The Education of an Idealist you will learn that she came from Ireland as an immigrant when she was ten years old, with her mother and younger brother. Her father was a supremely talented man — dentist and medical doctor, scratch golfer, possessor of a photographic memory, an excellent pianist and popular storyteller at the local pub but, alas, an alcoholic. Her mother overcame numerous challenges to become a medical doctor and is, says Power, the person I have always admired most in this world.”
With two accomplished athletes as parents, it’s not surprising that Power spent a lot of her adolescence playing sports, including high school varsity basketball, and after her first year of college at Yale, she decided to become a sports journalist. But while working as a student intern at a Braves-Giants baseball game the following summer, she had a life-turning incident. Sitting in a glass booth at the stadium, surrounded by CBS video feeds from around the world, she saw the Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” scene live. That image of human rights courage made a deep impression on her. Not long after she got back to college that fall, the Berlin Wall came down, and in the following summer (1990) she decided to do a European adventure with a friend, including visiting newly democratic Eastern Europe. After visiting the Anne Frank House, in Amsterdam, and Dachau concentration camp, in Germany, Power spent time in Yugoslavia and became aware of the fraught political situation there. Now much more interested in international affairs, she took a summer internship at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. (1991), and while in that position got really interested in U.S. foreign policy. After graduating from Yale, in 1992, she received an internship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she learned more about human rights abuses and started to meet U.S. officials involved in foreign policy. Then she returned to Yugoslavia in 1993 for two years as a freelance reporter covering the Bosnian War. That experience led to her decision to go to Harvard Law School, beginning in 1995, so that she could more directly affect human rights issues. It was extremely interesting to read how one thing in her life led to another, and in a few years a sports fanatic became a passionate activist for bigger causes.
While much of the rest of the book deals with Power’s public life, it is always done from a personal perspective, and there are many interesting personal stories and details along the way, including how Power coped with being the first U.S. female UN ambassador with small children — she had lots of excellent help. It is as interesting to read Power’s reflections on what she did as the doings themselves. The story of how she and her husband got together, while working on the Obama 2008 presidential campaign, makes for great reading, as does any time she tells about her interactions with her son and daughter. Ordinary children may say cute things about the family dog or their siblings, but Power’s son, the older of the two children, says cute things about world leaders in the family orbit.
Understanding of Global Human Rights Issues and What Can Be Done
If you know someone with an interest in human rights issues, this would be a great gift book. Power talks about many such situations: the genocide of the Ottoman Empire against Armenians (1915); the Bosnian War (1992-1995); the Rwandan Genocide (1994); genocide and civil war in Darfur, Sudan (2003 to 2020); Muammar Qaddafi’s army’s attacks on Libyans and threat to demolish Benghazi (2011); Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s army using chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta (2013); Russian annexation of Crimea (2014); and the United States’ policies on refugees, and many other past and present challenges. There are extensive illustrations of how work gets done within the United Nations, as well as an inside look at the United Nations Security Council, including a fascinating up and down diplomatic and personal relationship with Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin. A major takeaway for me on the UN was that nothing gets done without multilateral cooperation, but that a lot of nations look to the United States for moral and political leadership.
Power talks extensively about the difficult ethical issue of using force to attempt to prevent humanitarian abuses, as in whether to use deterrent-minded air strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons on their citizens, or whether to attack Qadaffi’s troops outside Benghazi to prevent their decimating civilians in the city. These are difficult decisions, where it is impossible to know in advance the ultimate consequences of A vs. B or C, but where one has to act. Power has come in for some criticism for her acceptance of the idea of using force for humanitarian purposes. What her education in idealism reveals is that in this world, in international relations, there are debatably better and worse situations and actions, but often there are not clear-cut and certainly not perfect solutions that are actually doable. So, an interesting part of the book has to do with balancing idealism with effectiveness, without giving up either.
Compassion, Networking with Others
From her college days onward, Power displays a gift for making connections with others, making the most of opportunities for being mentored, for instance by Mort Abramowitz, at the National Security Archive, humanitarian Fred Cuny, journalist Laura Pitter, diplomat Richard Holbrooke, diplomat and public official Susan Rice, and many others. Power seems to have a gift or at least a compelling thirst for learning all she can from those around her. She has in turn mentored many others, as UN Ambassador and as a Harvard Professor. And, of course, she was an advisor to President Obama during his first term, and his UN Ambassador in his second term, so there are a number of stories of Obama interactions.
During her tenure as UN Ambassador, Power called on the ambassadors of all 192 other nations represented at the UN, except North Korea — about 50 had never been visited by the US Ambassador. Many of these visits to “little” countries paid off later when the United States needed UN coalitions to work issues such as LGBT rights, women’s rights, and climate change. Power gives interesting accounts of several of the ambassadors’ personal stories, once again illustrating her care for the people and countries she worked with. For instance, Bhutan’s ambassador was one of six children raised in a rural area. When her father decided she and her sister should have the opportunity of an education, they “walked an entire day to reach a paved road, where they boarded a bus bound for a school in India.”
Power also made a point of regularly convening the G37, the 37 female ambassadors to the United Nations at the time she was serving — in a note she says the number fluctuated between 42 and 36 during her tenure. This was a great way to discuss women’s issues around the globe, compare notes, and forge ties between countries. In one decision that turned out differently than she anticipated, Power and the G37 got together on election night, 2016, for what they imagined would be a celebration of the election of the first female president of the United States. The party did not go well.
I finished the book with a very strong impression of Samantha Power as a dedicated public servant, humble, curious, compassionate, a person who loved and appreciated all the people in her life — it took about ten minutes for her to read the “Acknowledgements” section of her book in the audio version. This book is in large part an account of how human beings treat each other, and I drew insight and inspiration from Ambassador Power’s example. I will leave you with her closing words in the book: “People who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world, but they can change many individual worlds.”
Scott Moncrieff is a Professor of English at Andrews University.
Book cover image courtesy of Dey Street Books.
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