Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    brown textured background

    Chronicles of a Strategic Idealist

    A review of The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

    By D. L. Mayfield

    November 12, 2019

    As a trampled-down idealist, as a woman with heady thoughts of ending all war and suffering and trauma and genocide on earth, as a young girl who tried to savor her McDonald’s french fries slowly while thinking of the children starving in Ethiopia from the famine she kept seeing on the five o’clock news, as an erstwhile young conservative who proudly wrote a long paper on why the Just War theory was not compatible with Christianity and thereby troubled all her teachers and classmates, I would seem to be a perfect candidate to read Samantha Power’s new memoir. Unfortunately, the title does not deliver on its tantalizing promise. Instead, The Education of An Idealist reads more like a play by play of Power’s career as it intersects with the Obama years, a sort of half-time party and assessment before she starts the next phase of her life in the halls of power. 

    Even so, the glimpses one gets into her inner world and inner idealist are compelling. She starts at the very beginning, growing up in Ireland and emigrating to the United States with her mother at the age of nine, leaving behind her alcoholic father who eventually died (in her mind, due to a broken heart that she left him). In college she slowly became aware of world events and history. Fresh out of Yale, she found herself working as a journalist in Bosnia, trying very hard to make Americans care about the genocide happening in front of her eyes.

    These early years set up her career and give the most insight into her inner world, or early ethical imperatives. After her years reporting on the Bosnian conflict, she returned to the United States and pursued a law degree from Harvard. Back from the field, she was troubled by the widespread indifference to the genocide and lack of media coverage. When she ran the 1995 New York City Marathon, Power wrote on her shirt “REMEMBER SREBRENICA.” Then on the back for good measure she added: “8,000 BOSNIAN MEN AND BOYS, MURDERED JULY 12-13, 1995.” She remembers the confused crowds of onlookers who gathered to shout supportive messages to the runners, some cheering her on simply as “remember” because they couldn’t pronounce Srebrenica. It’s an illuminating, poignant, and slightly wry look at a young woman struggling to make sense of her role in a world full of both atrocities and privilege.

    As the book goes on, it becomes clear that to engage in politics is to die a thousand little deaths of principles and priorities. During her time at Harvard, Power began working on a paper highlighting United States foreign policy in light of modern-day genocides, which eventually turned into A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. The book excoriated the United States for its inaction to protect the victims of ethnic cleansings throughout the twentieth century. “We even – we here – hold the power, and bear the responsibility,” its epigraph quoted Abraham Lincoln. A Problem from Hell won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

    Power established a name for herself as a principled critic of foreign policy and advocate for the oppressed, writing and speaking widely and leading the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. She took the leap from outside observer to inside actor by joining the Obama campaign and serving in his administration, first with the National Security Council and eventually as Ambassador to the United Nations, a post she held from 2013 to 2017. From this position, she advocated (unsuccessfully) for United States intervention in Syria against Assad and his use of chemical weapons on his own people, for help to curb the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and for a diverse array of human rights at the UN. She did all of this while also being the mother of very young children, sometimes breastfeeding her daughter while taking secure phone calls to discuss high-risk international situations.

    In this dizzying spate of high-stakes activity, what became of Power’s identity and principles? Many critics have argued that the piercing moral clarity of A Problem from Hell dissipated within the administration and the pages of this book. Would the old Power have stood by while a leader gassed his people and the world’s greatest military failed to stop him?

    And yet, this dichotomy is not as simple as it sounds. The younger Power’s embrace of military intervention to stop genocide is itself inherently violent, a moral compromise intended for the greater good. (One response to her first book called it “a solution from hell.”) The “new” Power seems very similar to me: her hopes residing in the ability of the United States to wield its militarization and power for the better. Nowhere in this memoir do we see the true idealist – the one who sees a different way forward in the wilderness, a path of beating swords into ploughshares.

    This is, after all, a political memoir, the bald-faced slant of someone desperate to convince us she worked for the common good: “even the most conscientious government decision-makers operate with shrouded and shifting fields of vision, deciding among wholly imperfect options,” Power concludes toward the end of her 500-plus-page book. This tension remains the crux of her argument with herself and the world, given to her by President Obama himself: one doesn’t need to choose between the political ends of idealism or realism. One can try to live in between, and face all the contradictions this will entail.

    It’s a wonderfully complex idea. In the hands of a creative nonfiction writer, the inner world of a smart and outspoken critic as she becomes a career politician is outstandingly rich material. This is not, however, the book we have here. Power has shaped and edited the narrative, much of it interesting in the way someone recounting the headlines can be, with the obvious care of maintaining and preserving both her legacy and relationships that will remain important for her (in particular her relationship with Obama). Over and over again Power is forced to mold or transform the parts of her I find the most appealing in order to maintain her role in the UN, in politics, and to keep a seat at the table as a part of the “world changers.”

    This becomes acutely clear a little over halfway in, at the point she has been nominated to become the Ambassador to the United Nations. Preparing for her Senate confirmation hearing, she must train herself not to speak from the heart, or to express her real opinions. Facing interrogation in front of the watching world by Republican senators who long to block her nomination, she must learn to play the game. She recalls a moment when Marco Rubio pulls up an old piece she wrote in 2003, which called the United States a powerful empire and stated the need for a historical reckoning for crimes “committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States” in places like in Guatemala, Chile, the Congo, and Cambodia. Rubio asks Power what crimes she was referring to, and she responds, “I, as an immigrant to this country, think this country is the greatest country on Earth, as I know you do. I would never apologize for America. America is the light to the world.” Rubio presses her repeatedly to state what crimes the United States should apologize for and Power repeats the refrain: the United States is the greatest country on earth, we have nothing to apologize for. She ends her remembrance of the event by saying she had “lost her innocence” while gaining the votes needed for her confirmation.

    This should be lamented more than it is, as should the difference Power herself sees between her two selves and her two phases of life: the angsty idealist and the careful politician. The first Power wants to make the world a better place, the second decides to settle for making it less evil. By the end Power wants us to believe the second role is where she still believes the most good can happen. Do I believe her?

    The utter complexity of the international politics mentioned in her book make it hard for me to critique Power’s approach to the world. The Education of an Idealist troubled some of my easy assumptions and sparked a desire for a more careful engagement with both foreign policy and human-rights abuses personally. I felt a sense of detachment from Samantha Power and the rarified rooms and people she had access to; the enormous power she intended to use for good. What right do I have to critique what she has done, the compromises she has made, the tragedies that have accrued along the wayside? She has walked the halls of power, and tried to make something of them, which is more than most of us can say for ourselves.

    The Education of an Idealist reads more like a book of chronicles of kings and foreign powers, and less like a tirade of a righteous prophet. Both kinds of literature are perhaps necessary and needed, but which one will stick in our bones? And yet, a small still voice will not let me go. I do not have to settle for a world where only the realists can save us from evil. I can continue to grow my idealism, steeped in the stories of the people who suffer at the hands of these great political powers and machinations. My immigrant and refugee neighbors, my friends in generational poverty, the writings I follow from people far away: they all demand not only a world that is less evil, but one where the powers that be have completely transformed moral imaginations.

    I see glimpses of this in Power, but they are eclipsed by all that the empire demands. At one point she shares how in her role as UN Ambassador she would have to practice reading her speeches over and over again, especially if they contained information that involved violence against children. She would have to read such a speech to herself at least ten times before she could deliver it without crying. Her own children, so small and so vulnerable, made the politics at hand urgent to her; yet to reveal this truth through her tears would be to appear unprofessional, unstable, ill-equipped. And yet that true confrontation is precisely what is needed.

    I read that vignette, and instead of militarization or what Samantha Power calls “furious diplomacy” I dreamed just for one moment of the halls of the UN overcome with lament. I dreamed of every politician, every person (who is always some kind of mixture of idealist and realist) giving in to the sorrows that surround their eyes and ears every day. I dreamed of a book where an idealist could be honest about how far away she was from achieving her dreams. I dreamed of a day where none of us are crushed, where the world we live in is one where it is easier to love our neighbors, and impossibly difficult to call evil good.

    The Education of an Idealist Book Cover

    Get the book: The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

    Contributed By DLMayfield D. L. Mayfield

    D. L. Mayfield works with refugee communities and is author of Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (HarperOne, 2016). She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two children.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

    Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now