Samantha Power
Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy

Samantha Power on U.S. Foreign Policy:

“It is tempting to see Iraq as the source of all our woes now, whereas I see Iraq as the symptom, in some measure, of a number of longstanding trends and defects in American foreign policy.

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Samantha Power Profile


Carr Center for Human Rights Policy

May 30, 2007—The war in Iraq and the “war on terror” have focused attention on U.S. power and influence around the world. Samantha Power, the Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, contends that America is losing its geopolitical leverage on the world stage, and will have to change its policies if it hopes to gain it back. Power is author of “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, which was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. She was the founding executive director of the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Q. Though some analysts see U.S. foreign policy woes as a recent phenomenon, you argue that recent foreign policy missteps by current U.S. leaders have exposed and exacerbated long-standing structural and conceptual problems in U.S. foreign policy. Please explain.

Power: It is tempting to see Iraq as the source of all our woes now, whereas I see Iraq as the symptom, in some measure, of a number of longstanding trends and defects in American foreign policy.

One example is the US historic predisposition to go it alone. Because we have long undervalued what international institutions have to offer, we believed that we could go into Iraq, and as soon as we declared the mission accomplished, we expected to be able to turn the problem over to others, regardless of how they had been treated in the run up to the invasion. This thinking is very flawed, but not all that new. In a uni-polar world, the Clinton Administration was able to get away with an instrumental relationship with international institutions, but that is harder with the rise of new powers who are willing to challenge the United States in international bodies. It is also harder now that the Iraq war itself has exposed so many US weaknesses.

In addition, we long saw international authorization as a luxury, something good for global public opinion, but not very relevant to US national security. But what we have seen, by revealing our indifference to international legitimacy both in the Iraq war and in the practices carried out in our counter-terrorism efforts – the disavowal of the Geneva conventions, prisoner abuse, extraordinary rendition, etc. – is that being seen to thumb our nose at international law actually has profound security ramifications, as more and more people seek to take up arms against U.S. citizens and interests.

Another longstanding foreign policy flaw is the degree to which special interests dictate the way in which the “national interest” as a whole is defined and pursued. Look at the degree to which Halliburton and several of the private security and contracting firms invested in the 2004 political campaigns and received very lucrative contracts in the aftermath of the U.S. takeover of Iraq. Also, America’s important historic relationship with Israel has often led foreign policy decision-makers to defer reflexively to Israeli security assessments, and to replicate Israeli tactics, which, as the war in Lebanon last summer demonstrated, can turn out to be counter-productive.

So greater regard for international institutions along with less automatic deference to special interests – especially when it comes to matters of life and death and war and peace – seem to be two take-aways from the war in Iraq.

Q. Elaborate on your differentiation between “power” and “influence” as accurate metrics for conceptualizing effective foreign policy.

Power: I think that most of us, in a knee-jerk way, tend to conflate power with “hard power” – with economic and military power. At the Kennedy School, Joe Nye gave us the concept of “soft power” as another component of power. Building on Nye’s concept, we would be wise in the 21st century to measure our power by our influence. Influence is best measured not only by military hardware and GDP, but also by other people’s perceptions that we, the United States, are using our power legitimately. That belief – that we are acting in the interests of the global commons and in accordance with the rule of law – is what the military would call a “force multiplier.” It enhances the U.S. ability to get what it wants from other countries and other players.

The third component of influence – along with traditional hard power and legitimacy – is people’s perception that we know what we are doing, that we are competent. Here, one cannot overstate the devastating one-two punch of Iraq and Katrina in undermining the global public’s and the American people’s faith that the U.S. is a competent prosecutor of its own objectives.

Even if you disagreed with the Bush administration’s decision to go to war, and thought it would do more harm than good, many people assumed that this administration, in pursuing this war, would at least know what it was doing. Whatever its objectives were – again, objectives many of us found suspect or insufficient to warrant the use of military force – we expected this group of experienced professionals to pursue those aims competently, to prepare properly, and to bring adequate resources to bear. We all know now that experience does not translate into competence.

The war in Iraq has thus undermined our hard power by overstretching our military and sending us into deficit. It has undermined our perceived legitimacy because we’ve ignored the will of the international community and committed grave acts of torture, crimes against humanity, and other terrible sins in the conduct of the war itself. But, crucially, as my colleague Steve Walt has put it, we also no longer look like the country that put the man on the moon. Nor does the rest of the world see us, currently, as the country that liberated Europe from two world wars, that devised the Marshall Plan, that helped bring down the Wall. As a result, our ability to get what we want – whether we’re talking about ending Iran‘s nuclear enrichment program, halting genocide in Darfur, reforming the UN, or even securing international buy-in for the effort to stabilize Iraq – our influence has eroded such that we are unable to actually achieve our policy objectives

Q. You see the U.S. as being more isolated today than it has ever been. Though there have always been “America-firsters” among policy makers, why do you think this is especially dangerous now?

Power: Traditionally, American isolationism comes about in spurts as the result of very vocal domestic constituencies who believe that engagement with the rest of the world is bad for U.S. interests. Although today there are some in this country who would like to see the United States “come home” after its bungled misadventures abroad, most Americans understand that the nature of the global marketplace, as well as the global threats, make this impossible. Yet we are in a period of relative isolation – one that stems less from ascendant Copperhead isolationism at home and more from the way other countries calculate their interests as they relate to the United States. So, in a sense, those countries are retreating from the United States, rather than the United States retreating from them. It’s the reverse of what we have seen in the past.

What you have are a number of countries –even those with which the United States has long been aligned – who believe that a very close association between themselves and the Bush administration undermines their internal domestic standing. So we see longstanding allies of the United States pushing back against Washington, asserting independent views on everything from global warming and international justice to troubled war zones like Afghanistan, where the U.S. desperately needs the support of its western partners in attempting to stabilize that country. So we are the recipients of isolationism now, you might say, rather than the crafters of it.

Q. The focus in discussions of U.S. foreign policy is often on the executive branch, but you place great responsibility on Congress and journalists, and even the public, in relation to U.S. foreign policy. Why?

Power: The longstanding habit of governments is to pursue their national interests – to pursue their economic and security interests. That is what governments are for. That is what states are for. The only occasions in which regard for human rights and human consequences are injected into foreign policymaking historically are occasions when the Congress has insisted upon it or when the press has either shamed the Congress or shamed the Executive Branch into entertaining a broader set of interests which include regard for human consequences abroad. The reason this becomes especially important in the 21st century — in an era of asymmetric threats— is because our systematic neglect of human rights in the formulation of our foreign policy over the years has engendered great resentment. Our abuses in the conduct of the so-called “war on terror,” too, have enhanced terrorist recruitment, fueled vitriolic anti-Americanism and, arguably, made it more difficult for us to summon resources from other countries to deal with threats. Human rights abuses have supplied oxygen to the minority of those who hold the United States in such contempt that they want to take matters into their own hands and kill Americans.

It’s very important, for our national security in the long term, and of course on principle, that human consequences be integrated into our foreign policy, but it’s very unlikely historically that this will be done in a top-down fashion. So if the American people or particular constituencies care about particular issues – say Afghanistan, Guantanamo, or Darfur – unless they actually give voice to that concern, whether for its own sake or because they believe that those crises will come back and haunt the United States if they are not dealt with, the only way that the public is going to see their interests in those issues internalized by senior policy makers is if they make it vocally and painfully clear to policy makers that there is a strong domestic political constituency for a change in course.

Q. You posit that both the self-image and global image of the U.S. have eroded. How can the U.S. again be seen as a force for good in the world?

Power: It’s probably going to be a long and windy road to rehabilitation. A crucial step for the United States is to really begin to think in terms of “do no harm” and actually ending some of the more egregious aspects of its approach to counter-terrorism. First, in the “do no harm” camp: end the practice of extraordinary rendition, where US agents willfully ship terrorist suspects in our custody to countries that we know torture, for the explicit purpose of evading domestic checks on US abuse. Second in the “do no harm” camp: close Guantanamo and actually channel its prisoners through internationally respected legal processes. And third, restore habeus corpus to those detainees who are in US custody. To strip a group of individuals – no matter what blood some number of them have on their hands – of the most fundamental constitutional rights sends a signal to the rest of the world that there are two sets of human rights that we believe in: one robust set that Americans get to enjoy, and another much diminished set that those perceived as hostile to us get to enjoy. There are also two sets of individuals – “tortureables” and “untorturables.” So a first step in our rehabilitation is to rid our conduct of these colossal blemishes on the American character.

The second is embedding U.S. antipoverty, anti-disease and democratization policy initiatives within international institutions as part of a grand vision of what the United States actually does stand for – which is trying to ensure that people enjoy the kind of freedom from fear and freedom from want that Franklin Roosevelt promised Americans many years ago. The burden of actually making people secure in their homes is far too steep a burden for one country to handle. We must articulate a vision for human security and then channel US resources through international institutions, which themselves must become more rigorous and accountable. This will over time enhance US standing, but more importantly, it will force other countries – who have delighted in Bush’s misfortunes but put little on the line themselves to patrol the global commons – to pick up the slack.

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on March 14, 2007.


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