News of Samantha Power’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations prompted me to read her biography of that 68-year-old international organization. In truth, the book is a biography of the top diplomat killed 10 years ago when a car bomb gutted U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. Yet because that diplomat had effectively grown up alongside the United Nations – he was born fewer than 3 years after its Charter entered into force, and he would serve under 5 of its 8 Secretaries-General – Power’s Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (2008) tells the life story of both the man and the organization. The book thus indicates what Power thought of the United Nations back when she was advising then-Senator Barack Obama on foreign policy.
Emphasized throughout Chasing the Flame is Vieira de Mello’s transformation from a man of humanitarian action alone to one who comes to realize, indeed to embrace, the significance of politics in humanitarian endeavors. Recounting his late-1980s role in repatriating Vietnamese refugees, Power wrote with disapproval of Vieira de Mello’s decision to “downplay his and the UN’s obligation to try to shape the preferences of governments” (p. 69, emphasis hers). She likewise criticized his early ’90s stance of neutrality while serving in UNPROFOR, the hapless U.N. Protection Force mission in Bosnia: “impartial peacekeeping between two unequal sides was,” she wrote, “its own form of side-taking” (p. 179). In contrast, Power conveyed approbation when she wrote that by the late 1990s, after working to return Hutu refugees to Rwanda, Vieira de Mello “was now convinced that UN officials would better serve the powerless if they could find a way to enlist the power of the world’s largest countries” (p. 219). According to Power’s epilogue, the key to harnessing that power is flexibility (p. 516-17):
‘While many have responded to today’s divisions and insecurities with ideology, Vieira de Mello’s life steers us away from one-size-fits-all doctrine to a principled pragmatism that can adapt to meet diffuse and unpredictable challenges.’
The United Nations, she added (p. 519), has a critical role to play:
‘UN civil servants had to become more self-critical and introspective, accepting what had taken Vieira de Mello years to learn: that they are agents of change themselves and not simply the servants of powerful governments.’
In this book as in A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2002), Power put much blame on the U.S. government. The United States’ perception of its own self-interest often appeared short-sighted and inept. U.S. officials’ resistance to the International Criminal Court won them no favor. Ineptitude was especially evident in the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq – events that would place Vieira de Mello and other humanitarians in Baghdad on the fateful date of August 19, 2003.
Power herself began working for the U.S. government not long after Chasing the Flame was published. As Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the White House-based National Security Council, she spent years working on issues at the heart of her earlier writings. (An account of a central effort, establishment of an Atrocities Prevention Board made up of officials from various U.S. agencies, was the subject yesterday of a New York Times article.) She’s reported to have played a pivotal role in the U.S. decision to intervene in Libya based on U.N. Security Council resolutions that invoked a concept discussed in her book, the responsibility to protect; to be precise,at p. 528 and elsewhere, Power stressed Vieira de Mello’s espousal of the emerging doctrine. These experiences may have adjusted Power’s views on the relation between the United Nations its member states. Yet most likely her 5 requirements for foreign policy success, distilled from her account of Vieira de Mello’s life, remain a constant. Quoted in full from p. 523, they are:
- Legitimacy matters, and it comes both from legal authority or consent and from competent performance.
- Spoilers, rogue states, and nonstate militants must be engaged, if only so they can be sized up and neutralized.
- Fearful people must be made more secure.
- Dignity is the cornerstone of order.
- We outsiders must bring humility and patience to our dealings in foreign lands.