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From Rice to Power at the United Nations


Samantha Power
Samantha Power, 42, is the youngest-ever United States ambassador to the United Nations.

President Obama’s choice of Samantha Power to become the next United States ambassador to the United Nations and her recent confirmation by the Senate sends a strong, positive signal to all human-rights defenders.

“As one of our country’s leading foreign policy thinkers, Samantha knows that our nation’s interests are advanced with strong and principled American leadership,” Obama said in the White House announcement on Aug. 1. “As a longtime champion of human rights and dignity, she will be a fierce advocate for universal rights, fundamental freedoms and U.S. national interests.”

The choice is positive not only for the American public, but also — from a European perspective — a global success. As a credible member of the president’s cabinet, Power is succeeding Susan Rice, who became the president’s national security adviser in July.

Power emphasized, in her first short remarks during the announcement of her candidacy at the White House in June, that she was supporting the idea and the work of the UN, even if it has failed sometimes in it  pursuit of peace and international security.

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“I have seen UN aid workers enduring shellfire to deliver food to the people of Sudan,” she said. “Yet I’ve also seen UN peacekeepers fail to protect the people of Bosnia.”

Power, who begins work on Aug. 5, is convinced that the US has to play a critical and leading role in supporting the UN. Most of her predecessors also made such an exceptional commitment to the world body. But Power described her personal role at the US mission to the UN as one that serves not only “common security” but also “common humanity” issues. Her use of the word “humanity” reveals that she does not intend to hide her enduring and credible human-rights record and advocacy for the prevention of genocide. Her answers during the Senate nomination hearing confirmed these intents.

Since 1945, Power is the 28th regular and the fourth woman US ambassador (after Jeane Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright and Rice). This post has been a cabinet-level position since 1953, with some discontinuities, and is often called the “second secretary of state.” Moreover, Power, 42, is the youngest US-UN chief ever.

Power’s biography is full of impressive milestones that shaped her personal background fundamentally. Born in Ireland, she immigrated with her family when she was 9 years old. After graduating from Yale University, she worked as a journalist, reporting from the Balkan wars from 1993 to 1996. Back in the US, she attended Harvard Law School, where she graduated in 1999 and published two important human-rights-related books: first, “Realizing Human Rights: Moving From Inspiration to Impact” (edited with Graham Allison) and her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”

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In the latter, she asks why the international community and the US constantly failed in the 20th century to collectively identify, recognize and respond effectively to instances of genocide. In 2008, she wrote “Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World,” a book about Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the UN special envoy who was killed in a 2003 bombing in Baghdad. In the book, she praises his and the UN’s unconditional efforts to pacify Iraq after the US military intervention.

Power was also the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government from 1998 to 2002, where she later became Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy. In 2005, she began to work for Obama as a foreign policy fellow when he became a senator from Illinois. During that time, she was credited with directing Obama’s interest in the Darfur conflict. Later, Power worked as a senior adviser to Obama until March 2008, when she resigned from his presidential campaign after calling Hillary Clinton a “monster.”

Power joined the Obama State Department transition team in late November 2008, and then became special assistant to Obama and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights at the National Security Council, a position she held from January 2009 to March 2013. As the lead White House staff member on issues related to the UN, she has been in close contact with the president as well as with Rice.

Power’s appointment as US ambassador shows that Obama shares her basic ideological framework. He told her that after reading “A Problem From Hell” in 2005, he was so impressed that he invited her to join his Senate staff.

But the question that arises now is whether Power intends to force military interventions with or without Security Council approval to stop genocide, such as in Syria. The answer may be found in her book “A Problem From Hell”: in it, she analyzes the international community’s and the US failure to prevent or, rather, end the Armenian genocide (1915-1916), the Holocaust (1939-1945), the Cambodian (1975-1979) and Iraqi (1987-1988) genocides, the wars in Bosnia (1992-1995) and, finally, Rwanda (1994).

Her key findings are that there has been nearly no reaction because first, too many American policy makers and the US public “trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy” and they “urge cease-fires and donate humanitarian aid.” Second, civil society in the US does “not generate [enough] political pressure . . .  [on] America’s leaders.” Third, the US government refuses to send troops to prevent genocide generally, even though only a few troops would likely have been necessary to stop governments from committing genocide. Finally, discussions involving US officials usually address only “the nature of the violence” and the “likely impact of American intervention” without talking about moral obligations.

Power suggested  two reasons the US must stop genocide: to protect innocent life and because the US has the power to stop the killings; and it is in the US’s own interest because genocide “undermined regional . . .  stability, created militarized refugees, and signaled dictators that hate and murder were permissible tools of statecraft.”

Even though some people might call her a “liberal hawk,” she is not advocating for blanket US military intervention around the world. In “A Problem From Hell,” she stresses that “the United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the marines. America’s leadership will be indispensable in encouraging U.S. allies and regional and international institutions to step up their commitments and capacities.” Genocide prevention, she says, “is a burden that must be shared.”

What is to be expected during her tenure at the UN? During her testimony in the Senate, she mentioned her three top priorities: “the UN must be fair” concerning Israel; “the UN must become more efficient and effective” on reform and decreasing its budget; and “the UN must stand up for human rights and human dignity, which are American and universal values.”

The first two points mainly reflect the Senate’s priorities, but the last point on human rights will be Power’s personal stamp at the UN. She has not been able to influence Obama’s policy on issues like the war on terror, Guantánamo detainees or drones, which are dominated by the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies.

During her time at the White House, Power already focused on such issues as UN reform and human rights, including the promotion of women’s rights and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender rights; the promotion of religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities; the protection of refugees; the campaign against human trafficking; and the promotion of the responsibility to protect doctrine and democracy, including in the Middle East and North Africa, Sudan and Burma. As for Syria, Power is not likely to push for a military intervention, but she would strongly advocate supporting the Syrian opposition and encouraging greater international support to end the conflict.

Under Power, the US approach to foster multilateralism at the UN may be intensified. When Rice took office, her task was to re-establish the strong reputation of the US at the UN and carry out Obama’s foreign policy change of active multilateralism after the George W. Bush years. In the post post-9/11 era and in a time of decreasing capacities and budgets, the US is, more than ever, dependent on multilateral cooperation. Power’s task will be to garner partnerships on such special issues as building stronger international law.

In her 2005 New Yorker commentary about one of the most controversial US ambassadors at the UN, John Bolton under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2006, she criticized his appointment as “a bureaucratic fix for an Administration that doesn’t really care what happens to the U.N.”

In the commentary, Power also advocated cooperation between the US and the International Criminal Court on Darfur and praised European countries like Germany, which has “helped make up the loss of American funds and personnel, and the court is now deep into investigations of mass slaughter in Congo and Uganda.” For this reason, Europe welcomes her appointment at the UN. She can count on the support of European allies and others, who deeply regretted the US’ absence on the UN Human Rights Council until 2009.

Like Rice, Power is not a career diplomat but a political appointee, and she is famously known for her direct personal and “powerful” style. Indicatively, she referred to two other US ambassadors at the UN during her nomination hearing: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, from 1975 to 1976, and Kirkpatrick,  from 1981 to 1985. Both were famous for their confrontational style at the UN, while speaking against US adversaries and authoritarian governments. But they were also known for their isolation at the UN. Power will mostly likely be less confrontational. And like her role model, Richard Holbrooke, a US ambassador to the UN whom she got to know in Bosnia, Power could see the UN as a “problem-solving agent” for the US in advancing its interests.

Together with Rice as national security adviser, Power will continue to influence Obama on US foreign policy. She will not necessarily be in a stronger position to affect foreign policy in her job at the UN, but she will definitely move into a higher, more public profile, not only representing the US at the UN, but also — as Rice did — representing the UN to the US. Let’s hope she brings new power to the world body.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Patrick Rosenow is a research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. His research focus is on the United Nations and US foreign policy and his Ph.D. is about the role of US-UN ambassadors from 1946-2013. In addition, he is a research assistant on a project about the UN special representatives to the secretary-general, financed by the German Foundation for Peace Research ( From 2007 to 2010, he was teaching Model United Nations courses in Hamburg and organizing study trips to UN headquarters in New York. From 2002 to 2007, he studied political science at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany. He lives in Jena.

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