Archive for October 17th, 2008

Samantha Power for Secretary of State

She was born in Ireland.  She’s only 38 years old.  And she had to resign from Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during the primaries when she called Hillary Clinton “a monster.”  But with an inside the beltway Vice President in Joe Biden, Barack Obama, should he win the election (which is looking increasingly likely), could send a clear message by choosing Power as his Secretary of State.

A more likely role for her would be national security advisor.  Since she isn’t a native born US Citizen (she moved her at age nine, when her mother left Ireland because it did not allow divorce), she would not qualify for the Presidency should a disaster kill the four people in line in front of her.  But in a world with new challenges, Power would symbolize a new American foreign policy ready to go in a fundamentally different direction.

First, she has taken head on some of the more difficult issues in American foreign policy: human rights, and our inability to act in crises like Rwanda and Dafur.  Her book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide is a must read for people concerned about why we are so quick to intervene in places like Iraq or Bosnia, but ignore other parts of the world with far worse atrocities taking place.   She has worked as a reporter for some of the top publications (The Economist, The Boston Globe, US News and World Report, and The New Republic), and still has columns appear regularly in Time.   She knows how to communicate, and in her reporting has demonstrated a wide range of knowledge about different world perspectives.

That in and of itself is important.  American Secretaries of States have seen their role as selling American foreign policy ideals to the world.  They use US power, status and promises of aid (or threats of reprisals) to try to get other countries to behave the way we want them to.  That’s how a superpower, especially one with a kind of neo-imperial reach like we’ve had at least until recently, operates.  However, that era is fading.  We need someone who actually understands the world, and tries to negotiate not simply to sell our preferences and get our way, but work out compromises and build partnerships.   That’s how to deal with 21st century problems.

Of course, being a journalist alone doesn’t qualify her.  She also has a law degree from Harvard, and currently teaches at the Harvard affiliated John F. Kennedy School of Government.   She is currently the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at the Kennedy School.  Her academic credentials in foreign policy may not match those of Condoleezza Rice or Henry Kissinger, but compared to most Secretary of States in recent years, she would come to the job with a strong understanding of how the world works.

She would also counter the tendancy that Joe Biden might bring to see the world through the lenses of the “old school.”  Biden understands foreign policy, and I still think his idea of partition for Iraq may ultimately be the final outcome in that country which is not near as far along the road to stability as the Republicans want to pretend.  But he’s been shaped by an era where the US was the dominant actor, and our morals and values were accepted as universal goods.  Our goal was to spread democracy and human rights the American way.   Diplomacy was real, but built on a premise of American power as a given.  It is the kind of thinking that leads to fiascos like Iraq, or miscalculations like Kosovo.

Power would bring a new way of thinking to the role.  The US has to redefine its foreign policy in terms of global values rather than raw national interest.  Not because national interest is bad, but that in the 21st century it’s actually the development of global values that will best serve the national interest.  The dirty little secret of globalization is that it’s not just the ability to buy cheap Chinese goods or allow investment across borders.  It creates a new kind of interdependence whereby sovereignty no longer is the central defining role of the international system.  States remain nominally and legally sovereign, but their ability to act to control their destiny is shaped by forces outside their control.   Big, powerful states like the US and China can avoid having to deal with that for a longer period of time than smaller states, but it’s catching up to us now too.   The 20th century is gone.  That world is not coming back.

Power’s work focuses on the conjunction of how to create transnational values and the nuts and bolts of foreign policy.  She considers not just the power calculus, but the human side of world events.  That’s necessary if we are to escape the kind of power oriented approach that has shaped our approach in the past.   (Glibly: Power would bring to foreign policy a different perspective on power).  The old way isn’t going to work in the future.   And, though she did call Hillary Clinton a monster, she hasn’t been a divisive partisan figure.   Nonetheless, reports I’ve seen suggest that everyone who knows her considers her extremely strong.  She is said to have both a keen intellect and persistence — traits we need in our first diplomat.

This would be an ‘outside the box’ pick.  Most likely the Secretary of State job will go to someone with more inside political connections as a way to create a balanced Presidential cabinet.   Obama may even reach to a Republican like Richard Lugar, who could end his career with a very distinguished position.  And, to be sure, I’d be delighted to see her as National Security Advisor too.   But, though she’s covered the Yugoslav wars and certainly understands security issues, her background and approach seem better suited for the highly public Secretary of State role, rather than the more private and bureaucratic National Security Advisor position.

So I’m putting my plug in early for a daring but I think sensible and symbolically powerful choice for Barack Obama’s Secretary of State: Samantha Power.

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