In the Corridors of Samantha Power: A Realist View of Values in International Affairs

a book review essay of The Education of an Idealist, by Samantha Power


by Jamie Arbuckle for Peacehawks


… the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain …

- Edith Wharton,  The Reef,  (1912)



Since the publication in 2002 of her Pulitzer Prize winning book  A Problem from Hell,  which explored American actions and inaction in responding to genocides from Armenia to Kosovo, Samantha Power has been one of the world’s foremost and effective chroniclers of human rights.  In her journalism, in her several books, in her teaching and in her work, she has tirelessly and courageously exposed the deeds and misdeeds of those, mostly governments, who abuse and persecute, mostly their own people.  This, after having devoted so much of her life and her career to the stories of others, is finally her story, and it is well worth reading.


This book is, before everything, an autobiography, and that is in a sense a pity. Peacehawks is generally more interested in events than in personalities; we care more about what happened and why than we care about who was there, still less who is to blame. That is not to say those latter are of no consequence, but they are not our primary interest. The presence and the actions of Richard Holbrooke are of lesser consequence to the Dayton Accords which ended the war –  but not the conflict – in Bosnia Hercegovina.  We say it is a pity that this excellent book is so personally autobiographical, because it might otherwise have been a splendid vehicle to educate in more depth about the circumstances and the agencies, the stakeholders and the players in those years preamble to and beginning our young and already-tattered century.


We will first review the book she did write – and then we’ll discuss the book we hope she still might write.

The Education of an Idealist


Samantha Power was born in Ireland in 1970. At the age of nine she and her mother immigrated to the United States.  Her mother became a Doctor.  Samantha was educated at Yale and Harvard and was initially a journalist. From writing the news from conflict zones she eventually began to write more widely, and her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.  Because of this book, she came to the attention of Senator Barack Obama, and he continued to seek, and largely to accept, her advice through and after his presidential campaign. After four years as his human rights advisor, in 2013 she became the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations.


The transformation from outspoken outsider to a no less outspoken, not to say confrontational, insider was clearly neither simple nor easy, and Power relates frankly how difficult the adjustment to “reality” was. Indeed, she seems to have managed well major transformations – Ireland to the US, student activist to journalist activist to author to cabinet officer and diplomat – and along the way becoming a wife and twice a mother.  That life alone would be worthy of close study.


Power began her career in journalism as Francis Fukuyama was proclaiming “the end of history,” and the ideological victory of political liberalism. Neither he nor anyone else had any idea that “issues of tribe, class, religion and race would storm back with a vengeance – starting in the Balkans, but decades later spreading to the heart of liberal democracies that had seemed largely immune.” (p. 45) Fortunately for all of us, Power set off in June 1990 to see for herself. She was, again fortuitously, visiting Europe in the immediate post-Cold War epoch, and it seemed that democracy was again on the march.  But the furies were waking, and the iron clang of those wings was soon to be in all our brains.


There followed then the steeply ascending path which led through (what was soon to be almost universally called) ex-Yugoslavia – and beyond, to Harvard Law School, and further on, to intimate involvement in the Obama campaign, then deepening involvement in the making and the implementation of policy at the very highest levels.  Ultimately she arrived, with little experience either of administration nor of diplomacy, on the steep, oxygen-poor, wind-swept upper slopes of a Cabinet appointment in the Obama administration – she was the youngest ever U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.  She held that post for nearly four years, from August 2013 to January 2017. To us, her proudest moment came on December 13, 2016, in a Special Session of the Security Council, called to discuss the then-ongoing assault on Aleppo by Syrian government forces, supported by Russians and Iranians.  It is a speech which will always resonate for us, when, in her own words, “I put down my prepared statement and went off.” Addressing the Russian Ambassador directly, she asked


Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit?  Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?  (p. 540)


“And”, as she says, “we were about to hand the reins to someone who had nothing but kind words for Putin.”  It was time for her to go, and she went, eventually to produce for us this fine book.  For this work, as for all else she has done, we are profoundly grateful.


And Furthermore …


We don’t want to appear to criticize this book for what it did not set out to be: it is an autobiography, and an important one.  But we often want to take books a few steps further than did their authors.  If we were to use this book as a platform, a major reference for teaching, these are some of the areas we would wish further to develop:

  • The Charter of the United Nations;
  • Peacekeeping vs. Peace Enforcement; and
  • The issue of the sovereignty of the Member States.


The Charter has in this book a largely silent role: it is always there, just off stage, but seldom speaks.  That is a very common role for the Charter, as we have written on this site:


In the course of a 37-year military career, which included UN peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, I never once read or even saw a copy of the Charter of the United Nations. I don’t know of any other officers who did, nor did I ever even hear it discussed. And, as for our understanding of our employment and of our missions, that was pretty much it for my generation of officers. And still it seems today that much current debate, even at very high levels, is little better informed and no less careless of detail than in my generation.  (Peacehawks, April 2015)


We are sure Power knows more than she is telling us here. We can just hear the dull but insistent voice of the editor: “Think always of your audience, don’t tell them more than they need to know, especially don’t tell them more than they want to know”.  Well, our audience and we sorely need and really want to know all we can learn about the UN, and especially about issues of international peace and security.


The term “Peacekeeping” appears nowhere in the Charter.  Chapter VI prescribes the “Pacific Settlement of Disputes”, and it is under that Chapter that most peacekeeping missions are mandated.  So common has this been that these have come to be called “classical” peacekeeping missions.  (From the inception of UN Peacekeeping until 1993, only two missions had notbeen mandated under Chapter VI – see below).  It is also commonly inferred that these missions are “consensual”, requiring the conscious and consistent consent of the international community (which in practice means the Permanent Members of the Security Council – the P5, who have veto powers), the people affected by the conflict and, most importantly, the parties to the conflict.  By the way, these last two are often not the same, but the issue of quarrels manufactured from the whole cloth of apocryphal history is something for another day.  (But just try to imagine any one of the post-Cold War conflicts which has been of any slightest benefit to the people in whose name they were pretended to have been waged.)


The consent issue is a major factor in the efficacy of a mission. As an example of this, we go to the Rwanda mission. As Romeo Dallaire describes:


In Rwanda the radio was akin to the voice of God, and if the radio called for violence, many Rwandans would respond, believing they were being sanctioned to commit these actions.[1]


In the summer of 1994 General Dallaire informed the Canadian National Defence Headquarters than he would request of the UN that he be provided the means to jam Radio Mille Collines, the main propagator of hate messages. Canada had that capability in the Electronic Warfare Squadron of 1 Canadian Signals Regiment stationed in Kingston, Ontario, and the elders of NDHQ were keen to support Dallaire’s request. However, no action could be taken until the UN formally requested this of the Canadian Government. This the UN never did, so UNAMIR never did get a radio jamming capability. The peacekeeping theologians at the UN had noted that this was still a Chapter VI – consensual – mission, and that such an “attack” would be a violation of “host nation” sovereignty, whatever that was imagined to be.  And this was after 14 UNAMIR peacekeepers had been murdered, including the ten Belgian paratroopers who died defending the vice-president of Rwanda from the mob which went on to murder her as well.


Chapter VII of the Charter is often referred to as the “peace enforcement” chapter, but that is an oversimplification.  As we have written:


Chapter VII begins with “measures not involving the use of armed force” (Article 41) and, should the Security Council consider these inadequate, “it may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security” (Article 42). Actions mandated under this Chapter of the Charter are referred to as “enforcement operations”, and give to this Chapter its popular title of “the Enforcement Chapter.”  A Security Council resolution under this Chapter will frequently contain the phrase “taking all necessary measures” (it may or may not otherwise refer directly to Chapter VII). (Peacehawks, April 2015)


From its inception, the UN had mandated only two missions under Chapter VII, and they were the operations in Korea in 1950 and the Congo in 1962. Since 1990, however, most UN peace operations have been or have become enforcement operations; indeed, the Security Council has mandated the invasions of three member states (Iraq, Haiti and Somalia). In the period 1991-1994, the Security Council passed eleven resolutions under Chapter VII of the Charter in respect of the Former Yugoslavia and Bosnia Herzegovina.


And therein lies a major problem with enforcement operations. It is known in the field as mission creep, and it occurs when a mandate is escalated without effective changes to force structures, capabilities and resources.  We have just spoken of the forlorn attempt to maintain the fiction of consent in Rwanda.  But Bosnia Hercegovina provides another example of mission creep into tragedy:


The United Nations Protection Force had originally been mandated in 1992 to conduct “Chapter VI” peacekeeping operations in Croatia, but the urgent humanitarian situation in Bosnia Herzegovina could not be ignored, and the mission quickly (four months into its deployment) segued into a Chapter VII operation in Bosnia.  A marginally adequate troop increase was authorized for this expanded mission.  However, the UN involvement in Bosnia again deepened with the establishment of the Safe Areas, the first of which was proclaimed in Srebrenica on 16 April 1993, when the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the Charter, adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 819. This demanded that “all parties treat Srebrenica as a ‘Safe Area’, which should be free from any armed attack or other hostile act”. On 21 April, UNPROFOR troops entered Srebrenica. On 6 May, with the passage of UNSCR 824, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Sepa, Gorazde and Bihac “and their surroundings“, were added to the list of Safe Areas. On 4 June, that mandate was again expanded to “deter attacks … monitor the cease fire, to promote the withdrawal of … units other than those of the Bosnian Government and to occupy some key points …”.


It was at this point that mission creep was born: although the UNPROFOR Force Commander had estimated that 34,000 additional troops would be required “to obtain deterrence through strength”, the Secretary General “noted that it was possible to start implementing the resolution under a ‘light option’”, with a minimal troop reinforcement of around 7600. That option assumed the consent and cooperation of the parties and the presence of effective tactical air support, and it was further assumed that this would provide a basic level of deterrence. Despite the sorry experiences of the UN with consent, cooperation and deterrence in the former Yugoslavia, the Security Council authorized that “light option” of 7600 additional troops.[2] None of those troops had arrived when the final assault on Srebrenica, guarded by about 150 lightly armed Dutch “peacekeepers”, began on 6 July 1995, and the town fell on 11 July. Zepa fell 14 days later.  At the time, NATO intelligence (and therefore all NATO troop contributor nations) were aware that those  peacekeepers were faced with about 1500 Bosnian Serb troops with tanks and artillery, and that probably several thousand more like them were less than two hours away.  The UN was never told this – they weren’t cleared.  “The moral responsibility of the international community is heavy indeed,” the Secretary-General concluded.  Indeed.  (Peacehawks, April 2015)


While we are on this subject, there was then and is now commonly an exaggerated notion of what airpower can achieve. It is too often considered a low-risk, surgical intervention. When that turns out that to be none of the above, the disappointment is intense, and blame for the “failure” is indiscriminate.  The syndrome – unrealistic expectations, leading to intense disaffection – is not of recent origin:


Aerial weapons were at once enormously destructive and entirely indecisive. … From above they could inflict enormous damage, they could reduce any organized government to …incapacity, but they could not disarm, still less could they occupy the surrendered territory below.[3]


And that was written by H.G. Wells in 1906, before there was any air force, anywhere in the world.


So when Power tells us that a colleague “raged against the U.S. government about the ineffectiveness of American air operations over Bosnia, saying , ‘They were stunting up there, flying  around in circles and playing …  They could have done something,'” (Page 78) she is being disingenuous.  That was more objectively and usefully described by Michael Ignatieff when he wrote of U.S. Air Force operations over Kosovo, ” … American pilots were upstairs at 15,000 feet watching people going from house to house with machine guns and knives and couldn’t stop the ethnic cleansing.” [4]And Power finally concludes that, to save the Libyans, “more than a no-fly zone would be required” (page 298). Wells would have sympathized.


Power’s judgements on the U.N. in the cases of Rwanda and Srebrenica are also not so useful:  ” … the UN peacekeepers evacuated (Rwanda) when the violence escalated.” (Page 274) In fact, the Belgian government withdrew its contingent after 10 murders, and in April 1994 the Security Council ordered the reduction of the Force to 230 personnel, effectively turning it back into the observer mission it had started out to be in October 1993.  Notwithstanding, some 270 Blue Berets soldiered on. And when she accuses “UN forces” of standing by “while a massacre was committed” in Srebrenica, she should have known, or could have found out, just what the odds against those peacekeepers really were.  The Netherlands government surely knew, and after 10 Belgians were murdered the year before in Rwanda, and 33 Pakistanis and 18 Americans in Somalia in the year before that, there were no remaiining illusions about the protection afforded by “emblems” such as a Blue Beret, still less of a Red Cross.  We must say that Power’s judgements here are neither analytical nor corrective; she is blaming, which is poor stuff and unworthy of her.  It easily becomes scape-goating.


The principle of the sovereignty of the member states is enshrined in the Charter.  As Article 2,1 provides


The organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members.


And Article 2.7 is more explicit:


Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state …

This paragraph has been repeatedly abused as a shield for widespread abuses of human rights: it is just that “domestic jurisdiction,” plus “national sovereignty,” which seem to have fused into an inertia of rest, limiting where not preventing altogether international or regional intervention in the affairs of a member state of the United Nations.  Domestic jurisdiction has become, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, the last refuge of a scoundrel. (As we wrote on this site in January 2010).

And as Power has written, the Chinese argue “that a sovereign state had the right to do whatever it wanted within its borders.” (Page 226). They are deliberately disinterested in the human rights of any of their partners, chiefly because they don’t recognize those of their own people, and such issues are clearly not up for discussion with them. As we have written here:

The Chinese have determined not to be swayed by criticism of their policies and practices in Africa, which in other eyes are supportive of the worst abuses of human rights, and the resulting creation and subsequent persecution of vast waves of refugees. Thus, when touring Africa in April 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao said (according to the Washington Post) that China will make “business deals without any expectation that governments will improve democracy, respect human rights or fight corruption. He told reporters in Nairobi, the last stop of his tour, that China follows “a policy of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs”.  In 2008, China’s trade in Africa increased by 45%.[5](Peacehawks, 26 February 2016)


We have of course heard this before and often from those who find democracy inconvenient and wish not to be annoyed further: “It is not ambition which made the Führer leave the League of Nations, not a passion, nor blind obstinacy, not a desire for violence; it is nothing but the clear wish to be unconditionally responsible for assuming the mastery of the destiny of our people”, wrote Martin Heidegger in October 1933, just before leaving the Nazi party.[6]


There is a final clause in 2.7 which deserves to be more widely known and cited:

… but this principal shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.


Should it ever come to that in, for example, Hong Kong.



We have said that we sincerely do not want to criticize this book for not being what it did not set out to be – it is not a book about the United Nations, it is a book about Samantha Power, and that is quite in order. Hers has even at her young age been an interesting life, and she has made valuable  differences. We ought to be grateful to her for her lifework so far, and for this well-written book.  Young women often complain, with justice, that they lack role models. Well, here is just the book for them – but not just for them.  Imagine being 46 years old and “going off” with that “Is there nothing” speech. We will never forget that.


But we want more – we do want a book about the UN, and this wasn’t it. Samantha Power is well positioned and qualified to write that book. Perhaps she might still.  If she does, we’ll make sure you hear about it.


[1]Dallaire, Romeo, Shake Hands with the Devil: the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Random House Canada, 3003, page 272

[2]UNSCR 844

[3]Wells, H.G., The War in the Air, Harmondsworth, 1908 and 1941

[4]Arbuckle, James,  Military Forces in 21st Century Peace Operations: No Job for a Soldier?,Routledge, 2006, page 52.

[5]China goes modern, but mind the gaps, Peacehawks, 26 February 2016. See also  (accessed 23.02.2016).

[6]Toland, John, Adolf Hitler, Ballantine Books, New York, 1978, page 438

2 thoughts on “In the Corridors of Samantha Power: A Realist View of Values in International Affairs

  1. Noemi Gal-Or says:

    Dear Jamie and Ingrid,

    Again, a very interesting piece, which prompts me to share with you and readers these two bits:

    Re Charter: As a Ph.D. student at the then IUHEI in Geneva, one of the first things my professor of Public International Law, Prof. Lucius Caflisch, did was to give every student the little blue book, which I still keep in my library and from time to time, even consult. I used it in my teaching and circulated it among my students to see.

    Re Peace Operations: Just a reminder that in 2015, when running for Prime Minister of Canada, then MP Justin Trudeau promised in his election campaign (as part of the “sunny days”) to “bring Canada Canada back” onto the international stage peacekeeping operations. This promise was not really acted upon, nor was it repeated in the recent election (Oct 2019) campaign.

    Keep on the good work and best wishes for the holiday season!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>