Samantha Power on Learning How to Make a Difference (Ep. 75)

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Mercatus Center
Sep 11 · 44 min read

A former war correspondent and UN ambassador, Samantha Power has had her share of tough assignments. But writing a memoir about it all is also a daunting prospect. The format itself is a challenge: how do you convince the reader you’re worth spending time with? How do you paint a relatable portrait without oversharing and losing your dignity? For Samantha the answer was settling upon a purpose for her memoir and ruthlessly cutting out everything not in service of that.

Tyler and Samantha discuss that purpose and more, including what she learned as an Irish immigrant, the personality traits of good diplomats (and war correspondents), relations with China, why democracy is so rare in the Middle East, the truth about Richard Holbrooke, what factors mitigate against humanitarian intervention, her favorite memoir, how to get NATO members to spend more on defense, and whether baseball games are too long.

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TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with Samantha Power, who is currently professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and also the Harvard School of Law. She started her career as an NPR wartime correspondent, including in the former Yugoslavia. Her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, “A Problem from Hell, focused the attention of the world on the issue of genocide and revolutionized our thinking about foreign policy.

Samantha Power, of course, later served in President Obama’s cabinet, and she was his ambassador to the United Nations. She is also the author of other books, but most notably, she has a memoir just out called The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir. Samantha, welcome.

SAMANTHA POWER: Great to be here, Tyler.

COWEN: Very first question: Which personality characteristics do you feel make for a good diplomat?

POWER: Great question. Not asked enough, I think, by people who practice diplomacy. Probably, I’d start with listening and trying to really hear where the other person is coming from. Often, they’re coming from a standpoint of receiving instructions from their head of state or from their minister, for starters. Or if they are the minister, they’re implementing what is perceived as national will.

But they also are individuals who are sometimes very independent minded, and they’re fighting within their own systems. So often there’s a tendency to just see the instructions or the diktat that comes at you and think that that’s the sum total of what the individual in front of you represents or wants to advance. But in fact, you have to pry a little bit and try to loosen the individual up to get some sense of where they fall within their universe.

I only know that because it’s true of me as well, or anybody practicing diplomacy on behalf of the United State. You have to listen really carefully to understand the situated self in many ways.

COWEN: Which personality features make for good wartime correspondents? And are they the same as those which make for good diplomats?

POWER: They’re similar. Certainly, listening and really trying to see where the people that you’re interviewing, whether policymakers who are failing to or succeeding in managing a conflict or, more likely in the case of a war correspondent, the individuals who are affected by conflict or who are participating in conflict. So really trying to hear what’s motivating them, how they’re affected by conflict.

But then — and I think this would also be true of a good diplomat — being able to bridge a distance between the readers or the viewers that you have in mind back in your home country and then these experiences that most of your viewers and readers hopefully will never have themselves.

That requires keeping an eye on both and trying to see what is adaptive. What works for a reader — learn from that. If you get a lot of responses to a story because they see themselves in the individuals that you have managed to describe, then chances are that’s something you should try again. So really listening and hearing both sides of the spectrum, I think, as a war correspondent.

COWEN: How risk averse are good diplomats? And does that conflict with what you need to be a good wartime correspondent?

POWER: It’s hard to convey to people outside the realm of prosecuting foreign policy or practicing diplomacy, but most diplomats are quite bounded, in the sense that it’s very rare, actually, for a diplomat to be able to lean much beyond where they know their head of state has entitled them to go. When they do, they often get smacked down by the people who work above them.

I was very fortunate — but again, it’s not a common circumstance — to be both a diplomat representing the United States and a member of the president’s cabinet. I was able to spend enough time with President Obama to have a sense not only of what my explicit instructions were, but where the gray areas were at the margins and how far to push.

Being in that privileged position of spending more time with him, I was more inclined, I’d say, to be risk taking than somebody who’s literally receiving a cable from their minister or from their head of state to go forth and do X or Y on behalf of their country. I took a lot of risks in my public persona. They don’t sound like risks, certainly not like the risks I took as a war correspondent, but I thought it was really important to try to break out of a stale lingua franca that exists around contemporary conflict.

The tendency is just to describe conflicts in very mechanical, very antiseptic ways, and what I would do when I was projecting publicly — let’s say at the UN Security Council or at a press stakeout — is to tell the stories of individuals that I had met who had suffered the consequences of conflict.

This is, again, back to having been a journalist, but recognizing the diplomats who I’m disagreeing with are human beings, and that they’re as unlikely to be moved by rote talking points as I am unlikely to be moved by rote talking points or changed internally, emotionally, or changed as a practical matter.

This is, again, back to having been a journalist, but recognizing the diplomats who I’m disagreeing with are human beings, and that they’re as unlikely to be moved by rote talking points as I am unlikely to be moved by rote talking points or changed internally, emotionally, or changed as a practical matter.

So my only hope of breaking them out of the rut that they are in — not maybe my only hope, but a main source of hope — is to remind them that this isn’t just some run-of-the-mill conflict, that this isn’t just a day job, that there are these individuals who might be the same age as your daughter or your sister or your mother who are suffering these consequences, and we have a responsibility to try to shake things up a little bit because what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, or we wouldn’t be in a position of having this conversation.

It’s storytelling, but it’s more about breaking people out of their comfort zone so they can hear afresh what is happening in the world.

COWEN: If I think about Richard Holbrooke — he was one of the diplomats who helped broker a peace solution in former Yugoslavia. If I read your edited volume on Holbrooke, he sounds so sane and rational. If I read the new George Packer biography of Holbrooke, he sounds somewhat crazy and maybe a womanizer or obnoxious or a fair amount of disregard for protocol. How should I square these pictures? What’s the actual truth about Richard Holbrooke?

POWER: It would be unusual for any individual in a self-portrait to depict themself as a womanizing crazy person, for starters. But George’s book also depicts a person who aligns with the Holbrooke that we know from Holbrooke’s own portrayal, namely somebody super energetic and creative and working all sources of leverage. He was a complex individual who was sort of both and everything.

I was very lucky to have been mentored by him. That’s a story I told in the edited Holbrooke volume that isn’t as salient, I think, in Packer’s account. It’s very wonderful, but also quite unusual for an established diplomat, whether one who is self-involved and egotistical and/or one who is super talented and creative. Holbrooke was both of those things.

For anyone in those categories to spend the time that Holbrooke spent cultivating young diplomats, I think that speaks to a depth of character and a deep reverence for the United States, a kind of patriotism, because he saw it wasn’t like, “Let me have my refracted glory,” or “Let all of these minions go forth in the world and they’ll be mini Holbrookes going around.” I think he really thought it was incumbent on him to groom the next generation of diplomats to go forth on behalf of US interests.

So I think any black-and-white portrait of someone with that range of qualities would be flawed. I think George does an excellent job capturing the yin and the yang.

On migrating from Ireland

COWEN: You migrated to the United States from Ireland at the age of nine. When you first arrived here, what was your biggest surprise?

POWER: Everything was huge. When we arrived in Pittsburgh, which was my first hometown in America, I actually thought the airport had to be the biggest airport in the history of the world.

COWEN: You hadn’t been to Dallas yet.

POWER: Yeah, it would be years, really, because I didn’t travel that much as a kid. I remember we moved to Atlanta then when I was in high school, and then I got to Hartsfield International Airport. I thought, “My gosh, what is going on? These airports.” Coming from Dublin, or Shannon Airport would have been where we flew from, it was a different world.

Then just the selection. We had the old-school TV, which of course Americans did have many generations before, I guess, here in this country. But we had the three channels, the antenna where you try to get . . . One of the channels was only in Irish all the time, the Gaelic language. Then suddenly you get to America, and at that time, I think there were 13 or 14 channels, but within a few years there’d be 60, and then God knows how many we have now.

So just that sense of abundance, I think. But some things were similar, even if the form changed. Like sport was huge in Ireland, even for a small country — Irish football or soccer or hurling or whatever. Then you come to America, and you look around. It’s just a different set of sports but that same kind of enthusiasm and energy. There were categories that one could slot the new into that I brought with me, I guess.

COWEN: In which ways do you feel your thought is in some manner still Irish in orientation in a way that would distinguish you from, say, American-born individuals?

POWER: It’s hard to know because I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know what’s just because my mother is a physician and very empathetic toward her patients, and do I learn from that? Or am I moved by having come from a small country, at that time a poor country, that was sending —

COWEN: With a history of oppression, right?

POWER: With a history of oppression, with a history of the dignity of its people being trampled. Is that why I care so much about individual dignity? Again, I can’t run the history a different way.

But I do think that it is incumbent on large countries and large powers and large personalities to see the individual worth and dignity of the people around them, whether the person who works for you or the small country in the United Nations that may only have a population of 10,000, but nonetheless, every one of those 10,000 people on one level counts on the United States, let’s say, to deal with climate change or something like that.

So the idea that some countries are intrinsically better than others, or any kind of superiority complex — I think I would have been innately suspicious of that, I suppose, even as I rejoiced in all that made America amazing to me, both as a kid and as a diplomat.

On China

COWEN: China is very much in the news of late, so let me ask you some very easy questions about China.

POWER: It’s such an easy topic.

COWEN: As you know, China for years had promised the United States and also President Obama that it would not militarize the South China Sea. Then they went ahead and they did that. Perhaps looking back, this has turned out to be more important than we might have thought at the time. What was or would have been the best proper response to China militarizing the South China Sea?

POWER: First of all, there was an awareness across the administration, I think, of how this wasn’t just about a pile of rocks. This was about whether countries, especially an ascendant country like China that was going to just ascend and ascend and ascend for the foreseeable future, whether they were prepared to play by the rules of the road or whether might made right.

These are enduring questions that have been with us through history whenever there’s a rising power but also whenever there’s a falling power. How do different countries deal with major changes in their status? And what level of entitlement do they bring to their practices?

What we did was work with others to challenge them in the court of public opinion, of course, but also at the International Court of Justice, invoking the rules of the road, invoking the rule of law, and then to continue to try to maintain freedom of navigation in these critical areas.

It’s very challenging because it’s also the case that you don’t have an American public, or an American constituency, let’s say, that would be terribly enthusiastic about a military confrontation over questions of land grabs in the South China Sea. So you’re balancing an invocation of the rule of law, a recognition that some of these claims are contested, and that it’s not for us to decide whether this belongs to Vietnam or to China but to, again, invest in a rules-based order where every country doesn’t just grab what it wants but is prepared to abide by these rulings.

Unfortunately, what we’re seeing with China is, it just swats away those rulings, sort of as the United States has done in the past as well, I should note. And there is a tendency, especially among strong powers, to cherry-pick those findings that they like.

So I’m not sure going back — maybe more of an emphasis on the freedom-of-navigation dimension, which is something that all the countries of the world, including China, should be able to agree upon. We did really pivot — to use the phrase that President Obama used at the time — to Asia and make very significant new investments, both in terms of trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Negotiating that, which I think would have been an enormous boon and also a real signal to China that all of these countries are going in a different direction, and that you can’t separate out the military land grab from the economic, and that there are communities of values also that can come together. But that of course has been walked away from by the Trump administration. But we also made sizable military investments in the region, really deepening our presence in Asia.

Beyond that, again, I think it’s a balancing act. Looking back, I’m not sure that China was going to be bucked if we did six more freedom-of-navigation exercises, and I’m not sure, again, that the military confrontation approach . . . Some seem quite reckless in their prescriptions: “Well, why didn’t you answer?” How would that play itself out? You have to stand up for what’s right and stand up for the rule of law, but it’s not as if potential consequences have no bearing on that calculus.

COWEN: Here’s a reader question, and I quote: “Can the US really push hard on global human rights anymore if doing so would simply drive countries into the arms of China? Myanmar, for instance.”

POWER: Well, I’d separate a few different dimensions. Right now — and we’re not going to be living in a Trump world for an infinite amount of time. Some of us hope that it’ll be a very short amount of time from where we sit today — but right now, it’s very hard to credibly stand up for human rights, given the actions and commitments and practices of the Trump administration. And I say that not as one who is a —

COWEN: But say we had your preferred president, whoever that would be.

POWER: No, no, no. It’s not as if the world doesn’t remember children in cages or people orphaned by the United States who now can’t find their parents or the Kim Jong Un love fest. It’s not as if that’s a blip. That’s going to be part of our national heritage in a funny way.

But to bracket that question of how we recover from a Trump presidency and the human rights practices and affections of this president, I think that the core of the questioner’s concern is more geopolitical. It’s more, well, any country now can forum shop, and if they don’t like what they’re hearing from us, they’ll just say, “Okay, well, I’ll go and do my Belt and Road Initiative with China.” So that’s an enduring question, irrespective of whether we can clean up our act in the wake of Trump.

And what I’d say is, I actually look at it a little bit differently, which is that, in an age of China’s increasing aggression beyond its borders, its crackdown and increase in assertiveness in the near abroad — I’m not sure you can call Hong Kong the near abroad, but the fact that China actually goes to Thailand to round up a critic of China, of its incarceration of the Uighurs, or the fact that it is prepared to act beyond its borders in very aggressive ways, whether in the South China Sea or, again, in order to keep itself insulated from criticism.

China is now at the UN trying to alter the rules of the road and the core human rights principles that have undergirded the international system for more than 70 years. They’re trying to make the rules more pro-censorship, more about state consent and not about there being a set of higher principles against which states should be measured or judged.

They’re out there being China, and they’re out there not yet in a full mode of “Let us export our domestic values internationally.” That is not their number-one game plan right now. Their number-one game plan is internal stability above everything else, and of course sustained economic growth and economic sustenance and provision for their people.

But day by day, you’re seeing more and more of this exporting. So what the United States could do in deference to the logic of the question is to say, “Well, China’s out there doing its thing, and if we start whining about human rights, what good is that going to do?” Or to look at our values, our democracy, our traditions, our respect for the dignity of individuals as a comparative advantage in what is a bit of a scrum geopolitically, and there, I think, we would actually have a lot of friends.

What I hear most from European partners or democracies in Asia and Africa is, “We’re all alone. Now China is trying to change the rules of the road and we’re kind of scattered among ourselves. We’re trying to learn how to build coalitions without you, United States.” That’s not just because of Trump’s human rights practices. That’s also because of his lack of engagement with international institutions.

And as democracies, if we believe in this model, if we believe everything we’ve been saying for a very long time about the links between democracy and prosperity and the links between democracy and stability over time, then it’s actually in our interest to see that model strengthened and not to go into retreat. So I actually think that you’re going to see American politicians and leaders talk more, not less, about values in an age of China’s rise.

COWEN: Do you think it’s a fair criticism that US human rights advocates have been a little soft in criticizing China? Or a little bit lax? That you have an incarceration of maybe over a million people, and it’s sometimes claimed there’s a kind of soft implicit censorship at the think-tank level — think tanks who get money from China, universities reliant on Chinese students. A lot of companies, of course, have business in China.

Has the whole thing been soft-pedaled compared to, say, how Yugoslavia was talked about in the 1990s? We know Hollywood moviemakers won’t make a movie where a Chinese person is the villain, and they insert Asian-looking individuals as heroes, typically, to appeal to the Chinese market, which is now number two. Have we painted ourselves into a box of censoring ourselves?

POWER: Well, let me agree with a part of the premise, which is, given the scale of the brutality and, really, the atrocity being carried out against a people — the Uighur people in China — we’re seeing woefully insufficient coverage and criticism.

So I agree with that premise, in part because of the gravity of the harm. It’s hard to imagine what would be sufficient. I mean, that’s unbelievable. They can’t get out. They talk about reeducation and rehabilitation. It’s not like there’s some test where you say, “I love President Xi, and I wish he could be dictator, not only for life but for 100 lives,” and then you get out of jail. This is mass incarceration with no shelf life, and no one can escape this if you are a Uighur and speak your language and practice your culture. I mean, it’s sick. So woefully insufficient.

In terms of the soft-pedaling, I guess I’d want to look at that as an empirical question. I think part of what’s going on is you don’t hear a lot of criticism coming from the United States government. Every now and then, because of the religious freedom commitments of different individuals within the Trump administration, you’ll hear some discussion of the Uighurs more than you might, let’s say, in Saudi Arabia. Because there’s a broader attack on China because of trade and other things, this sort of gets lumped in with that, and there seems more comfort criticizing them than countries with which we are aligned and seem totally unprepared to criticize — again, like Saudi Arabia.

But it’s not as if the Trump administration has a human rights policy as such. It’s not as if they’re looking at the conditions inside particular countries. If they were, they’d probably be nervous about discussions of detention, given the amount of detention being done in the migrant and immigration context by the Trump administration — not that there’s any parallel, but nonetheless, it’s the kind of thing that would be thrown back at them.

So I think that there’s not enough noise. But it’s hard for me to know whether or not that latest Brookings piece isn’t going all in on that, or because of censorship or because of corporate influence — it’s plausible that that’s a factor — or because they actually feel that they don’t have a great recommendation as to what can be done.

I find in advocacy, you see the most spirited advocacy in circumstances like Bosnia where policymakers are on the brink of doing one thing or another, and activists feel like, in making their recommendations or in taking over the op-ed pages, that they’re sort of one step away from really making a difference.

On the Uighur policy, even if we were in office — the Obama administration or the next Democratic administration — it’s hard to speak with confidence that any particular tool that you employed would convince the Chinese government to think differently about this repulsive and brutal policy that it’s practicing. And so I think that is another factor.

But I’m sure the money is a factor as well, and it is terrifying. I see even here the extent to which you see such a willful attempt on the part of the Chinese government to sort of insinuate themselves into American college campuses, to really shrivel up the safe spaces in which criticism of China can occur, even thousands and thousands of miles away from where any instability might take root and might actually threaten the regime.

And again, with us more recessive on these questions — we, the United States, that is — I think you’re seeing an emboldened China using the money that it has, using the economic leverage that it has around the world, using the student exchanges that many of us really do think are a good idea as a general proposition, in part to increase connections among our peoples as our governments grow more estranged.

But they are all in on this strategy of sanitizing China’s reputation globally. And think tanks and independent institutions, educational institutions absolutely have to defy the intimidation and the really de facto bribery that China brings to bear in order to advance that agenda.

On democracy in the Middle East

COWEN: Why is democracy so rare in the Middle East? Another easy question.

POWER: [laughs] Yeah. Well, Tyler —

COWEN: It’s seems there’s this — if not a healthy democracy, but a vibrant democracy in Iraq, right?

POWER: I don’t know. I wouldn’t go that far. Insofar as —

COWEN: There are elections. Someone wins. It seems who wins corresponds to how the votes actually should be counted.

POWER: I suppose. But then it’s also the case that if you are a member of one sect or another, that dictates whether or not you have due process. If you want to make democracy just about whether you hold election . . . just an independent judiciary —

COWEN: Of course, sure. Not the rule of law —

POWER: The rule of law, yes.

COWEN: — but a democracy of sorts.

POWER: But it’s worth defining one’s terms. Look, I think Tunisia’s now, as it happens, as we speak, going through a transition where the rule of law had to kick in in the wake of the death of the president.

And even though Tunisia is experiencing terrorism, economic stagnation, the very levels of corruption arguably that gave rise to the Arab Spring in the first place, it’s a plucky democracy that has seen its leaders do something that other leaders in the Middle East haven’t done, which is to move away from the kind of winner-takes-all mindset.

And I think, why has democracy not taken hold in other countries? You have families that almost wrote a how-to manual for how to inflict the most savage atrocities on their people — that in the case of Syria.

In the case of Egypt and el-Sisi, a different kind of manual — not the same extreme tactics of incendiary weapons and napalm and chemical weapons and mass torture and so forth, but nonetheless willing to pull out all the stops to keep power because self-preservation and a mindset where if you practice your religion or believe that religion has a different place in society, you are like a terrorist.

That’s the sort of Egyptian mindset. Could it have gone another way in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall with a different outcome to their first democratic election? Or, indeed, with the same outcome — which was probably inevitable, given popular will, all told — if the person elected to represent the Muslim Brotherhood had not had a winner-takes-all mindset?

In Tunisia, you had the equivalent of a Muslim Brotherhood victory, but he recognized that the society is so divided that there had to be some kind of pacted transition. And it’s a tragedy that in the case of Egypt, at a time when the society was clearly divided, again, along similar lines as in Tunisia, that the idea on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, Warsi, was, “I’m in power. I may not have another election,” which was always the big fear.

Then Sisi comes in and he says, “Now I’m in power, and now this part of society that doesn’t represent my worldview, you are to be excluded from any hand in governance, and effectively I may never have another free election.”

Elections weren’t supposed to bring to office people who would have an election once in order to rubber-stamp their own power. It’s not only bad luck. There are no democratic institutions that have taken hold over time that have the kind of resilience and the rule of law behind them to have kicked in. But Egypt also suffered some bad luck, I think, in who the individuals were who were elevated.

And in a lot of these societies, you see some of the best leaders leaving, or staying and becoming entrepreneurs or civil society members and being so repulsed by what politics has represented that they wouldn’t dare to be part of public life or public office.

COWEN: If I look at Iraq since the surge — not the last year and a half — but it seems there have been some pretty high economic growth rates. Some of that’s oil, but it’s not all oil. Is there the danger that 20, 30 years from now, people look back — they simply see Iraq as a successful US operation? The country has a funny kind of democracy. It’s growing; it’s getting wealthier. The rest of the region is doing much worse. Is that a possible scenario?

POWER: I think what maybe somebody could conclude 30 years from now . . . we’d like them to conclude that democracy is the better form of government, or is the worst form of government apart from all the others, perhaps, and to see those returns with Tunisia to be able to point to a couple examples of what democracy can bring and so forth. I think that would be a wonderful outcome.

What no self-respecting historian would be able to say is that what the United States did was well prosecuted, was well thought through. I think it’d be very hard to argue that you have to break eggs to make an omelet, and this was just what it had to look like. You could imagine wildly different scenarios ultimately leading to the same kind of outcome but without a degree of bloodshed that is certainly unprecedented in that country’s history, even by the standards of having been governed by Saddam Hussein.

So in the end, they might say, “Yes, we staggered our way out of this completely bungled US-led invasion, and we took matters into our own hands with the support of the United States ongoing” — including by the Trump administration but also by the Obama administration — “and once the lessons of everything — sort of ham-handed — that had been done, had been applied, we were able, again, to stagger ourselves into some kind of solvent political structure. And then, lo and behold, we were able to build our own democracy.”

It would be great if Iraq became another exhibit of how, over time, when you allow people to hold their leaders accountable, you will end up with leadership that advances the needs of the larger population. That would be a great outcome. And in some dimensions — as you say on the economic axis, the fact that state-owned enterprises and other things have been taken over and the Iraqi entrepreneurial spirit has been unleashed — on that axis, good things are happening. But it’s a very difficult place for Iraqis to live.

COWEN: If we think of the cases where US humanitarian interventions should not happen, by your judgment, and we ask what is most likely the binding constraint when we should not intervene, what is it you think is the scarce factor? Is it the attention of the president, the tolerance of the public, having enough quality senior diplomats, the money it would cost, number of military troops? What’s the relevant margin at the margin?

POWER: You’re going to hate me, but I find it very hard to discuss in the abstract because, again, it is so multifactorial. For example, if you’re talking about looking historically, which I know is not what you were asking, but if you look at, let’s say, the East Timor intervention, which was widely seen as a success — that was a population of one million people. The entire, let’s say, 99 percent of the people in the relevant area supported the intervention.

The intervention from outside was Australian led, so there was at least some regional expertise and not the kind of tortured history that, let’s say, Portugal or the Netherlands or whatever, some kind of colonial past. So it was maybe, you could argue, just enough regional heft. There were a lot of issues between Australia and East Timor, but not quite the same baggage maybe, so a little more legitimacy in terms of culture and nationalism. And it had the broad support of the UN Security Council.

You raised a number of issues. What I would say is, what is the harm on the ground that you’re even contemplating a humanitarian intervention in response to? Many people argued in the United States, in the Bush administration, that what Saddam was doing to his people in 2002–2003 had crossed some threshold for humanitarian intervention.

It was a huge country, not a million people. It had a huge sectarian cleavage that the Bush administration, of course, completely underestimated. It had zero international legitimacy. It had a huge amount of attention from the president, initially great popular support because of the faux link mainly, I suppose, to 9/11 and to weapons of mass destruction.

But I would argue that you don’t even get to that question of “Is it a humanitarian intervention?” because a dictatorship, even one as brutal as that one — there was no clear and present danger to huge numbers of lives or no imminent risk of genocide or something of that nature. And in part, it kind of takes care of itself because when there isn’t that precipitating trigger, you have a very hard time securing international legitimacy, never mind international legal support through the Security Council, which is hard to get in the best of circumstances.

So I’d say that — and indeed this was said at the time, I think — that your ability to build an international coalition, to use military force, the breadth and the pluralism of the coalition itself that might be brought to bear — usually that will have some relationship with the underlying harm and the sense that there’s a kind of trigger, either for a slaughter in a country or a trigger for an intervention.

In Syria, which was the most vexing issue that I’ve dealt with in my career, where I think we should have leaned in and at least taken some steps militarily to see whether limited intervention might have kick-started our diplomacy, might have created some protection for some number of Syrians . . .

I think if you’re looking at that from where the president was sitting — President Obama that is, and now President Trump — you see just the . . . similar to Iraq, but the underlying complexity among the factions on the ground, so the humanitarian trigger is higher than anything arguably since the Rwandan genocide. But as you do your cost-benefit calculus, the complexity of what you are seeking to influence just shatters, really, any of the other examples that we’ve dealt with over the last three decades.

So again, to look at it to say that there’s one cabining factor, one great limiting factor — the fact now that there is very little American domestic constituency for using military force when our most vital national interests are not implicated — I think that’s a fact right now on the left and the right.

There is a shrinking constituency for internationalism generally, and so, I think, one has to be all the more careful about getting too far in front of where the public is because already you’re seeing in very dangerous ways, I think, a backlash against the war fatigue in Iraq and Afghanistan and a kind of tendency to say, “This is what foreign policy buys you,” instead of, in the case of Iraq, “This is what a poorly planned, poorly executed military intervention buys you.”

There is a shrinking constituency for internationalism generally, and so, I think, one has to be all the more careful about getting too far in front of where the public is because already you’re seeing in very dangerous ways, I think, a backlash against the war fatigue in Iraq and Afghanistan and a kind of tendency to say, “This is what foreign policy buys you,” instead of, in the case of Iraq, “This is what a poorly planned, poorly executed military intervention buys you.”

We need to restore a constituency and a faith that we can have a productive foreign policy, and I think that part of what that will entail is putting diplomacy and burden sharing at the front of our messaging and of our packaging and of our actions. Right now, humanitarian intervention, if it happens — and it’s happening in different places around the world — but is much more likely to be done by regional organizations like the African Union than it is to be orchestrated by great powers.

And given the lagging public opinion, until some successful actions are prosecuted — depending, again, on the circumstances — that may be a wise thing. But that doesn’t mean that the United States doesn’t have a role, for example, in training and equipping the troops that are going into a Central African Republic or into a Mali or into places where lives can be saved.

On baseball

COWEN: I very much enjoyed reading your just-published memoir, and I recommend it to all of our listeners and readers. One thing that shines through in your account of your own life is your passion for sports. So, if I may, a few questions along that direction. Very simple — are baseball games too long? Why not make it 7 innings?

POWER: Why not make it 12?

COWEN: It’s boring, right?

POWER: For you and, as it turns out, for others.

COWEN: For me. So many games are over 3 hours. Shouldn’t the game be 2 hours, 17 minutes?

POWER: Look, if the pitchers could live with shorter warmups between innings, if what’s left of the advertising industry could live with fewer ads delivered in that manner, I could live with slightly shorter games.

But so far, the kinds of adjustments that have been contemplated, that are being, indeed, put in place this year, like holding your hand up and saying, “Here are your four balls for your . . . Here’s your intentional walk. I’m not going to go and do the four pitches.”

I personally think that’s a loss, and maybe it just shows you what a purist I am, but I find the suspense and the fact that even if 1 out of 20 — or I don’t even know what the numbers are, probably more obscure than that — but just the 1 out of 50 balls that go awry on an intentional walk, that’s part of the drama.

So much of what happens in baseball is about what has happened before that informs your experience of what is happening before your eyes, so to buy yourself four minutes here, seven minutes there . . . Susan Jacoby actually had a wonderful little book on this called Why Baseball Matters.

But the bigger issue is, we do have an aging constituency for the game, a youth potential constituency that can’t stay off its phones and that believes in instant gratification for just about everything, and so the one-click consumer wants drama, wants action.

The slow buildup, the idea that how many pitches the pitcher has thrown by the fifth inning then is going to have bearing on which crappy middle reliever the Washington Nationals are going to bring in — those sort of joys that people who’ve been groomed on the game and who didn’t receive the game in the first instance as kids in this world of distraction — we do have to grapple with the fact that we’re not winning those new converts.

Now, I think a lot more could be done by bringing baseball to the inner city and to communities that haven’t had the space or the resources to make it happen because the truth is, the greatest conversion for people, or the greatest attraction to the game, comes from people who’ve played the game and have had to work those mechanics and those philosophies and those strategies themselves.

So maybe less focus on length because, frankly, if a one-nothing nine-inning game is boring for somebody, a one-nothing six-inning game is going to be boring for somebody.

COWEN: Should Pete Rose be allowed into the Hall of Fame?

POWER: Oh no! Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. Can I say I don’t know once? Is that my lifeline?

COWEN: Should we have robot umpires?

POWER: Robot empires?

COWEN: For baseball. You have artificial intelligence judge if a pitch is a ball or a strike, and probably this would be much more accurate than humans.

POWER: Oh. Can I just say that I thought you said, “Should we have robot empires?”

COWEN: Oh, no. Umpires.

POWER: And that grows out of our discussion of China, I’ll have you know, and the rise of artificial intelligence and the like.

Robot umpires — I watch a lot of tennis as well as baseball, and I think it is very useful in tennis to have a machine that tells you what is true. My worry in baseball is that your two concerns compete with one another. I guess you’re imagining a robot umpire 24/7, not as a court of appeal.

COWEN: As much as you want. That’s the question.

POWER: So the idea would be the catcher’s glove would be like the tennis . . . I suppose. If on TV we can see what a strike is, maybe there’s no downside to that. I think to get the angles right at second base, not that they make great calls at first an overwhelming percentage of the time. Maybe you could even find a way, technically, to get the tie-goes-to-the-runner question at first.

But I think applying tags — we’re going to have to retain the human element there. And maybe there’s weirdly an appeal from a robot to a person in some of these subjective circumstances, but on a home run ball, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to ascertain on the question of whether a home run has gone over the line or is below the line.

I don’t know how you would do the foul ball. You could probably have some magnetic field along the yellow foul pole where the people sitting in the stands have electromagnetic rays going into themselves. That would be very, very healthy for the game. No.

I don’t know. I think it could get really carried away, but it is useful to have instant replay where at least there’s a court of appeal. And I think on balls and strikes . . . I hadn’t really thought of it much before. I’ve been a little preoccupied with the destruction of our democracy and other things.

[laughter]

COWEN: Less important things.

POWER: I think it’s not a bad idea. Yeah, if we can do it at home. That’s the migration tennis took, right? Was that they had that technology available and the fans were like, “Wait, why can we see at home whether that was an ace or a fault?” And we’re in that world now. The technology’s just so good that the media has; why are the pitchers and the catchers and the batters denied it?

COWEN: Bob Dylan or Van Morrison?

POWER: Oh, born Van Morrison, married into Bob Dylan.

COWEN: Okay. Star Wars or Star Trek?

POWER: Born into Star Trek, married into Star Wars.

COWEN: What’s your favorite novel?

POWER: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.

COWEN: Why?

POWER: Spanish Civil War, journalist’s questions of taking sides. I don’t know, I read it when I was in Bosnia as a kid in my early 20s, and it made a deep impression. It felt like the world around me. There was something timeless about it.

COWEN: Your favorite memoir? I was told that you read a large number of memoirs before writing your own.

POWER: Yeah, for my sins, and that was a terrible idea. Future memoir writers, don’t read books along the lines of what I’m going to describe. No, the best — and I mention it with great joy — the best memoir I read was Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open.

COWEN: I love that book.

POWER: Now that you hear that I love sports, listener, you’ll think, “Oh, she loves sports.” When I was growing up, I couldn’t stand watching Andre Agassi for all of the reasons of images, everything, and the hair and the not wearing white in Wimbledon. And I’ve never read a sports memoir in my life, weirdly.

I’m recommending this not because I like tennis and not because I like sports or because I somehow was some big Agassi fan, but it’s about friendship and family and grit, and it’s just beautiful in every respect. I recommend it to everybody.

COWEN: And overall, where is it or why is it that so many memoirs fall short? What do they get wrong? Why aren’t they better than they are as a genre? They’re like self-help books, business books, travel books. On average, maybe disappointing. Not yours, but so many.

POWER: I have taken on some very ambitious book projects in the past, and I found this so much harder. Partly, how do you write in the first person and not sound like an asshole, and not sound like you think you’re worthy of speaking — in my case, 500 pages — in the first person?

To not be presumptuous, to have what Cass would call the right implied author, to be a person that the reader — whether they’re interested in your story or not — that the voice that you’re projecting is the voice of a person they’d want to spend time with? I mean, it’s really presumptuous. The Irish like to say that you shouldn’t even use the first person in therapy, [laughs] and that’s how I felt writing. I felt immensely self-conscious at the beginning.

But I think, to the degree that I got mine to work — and I hope I did — it really requires a ruthlessness with your own story. Just because something happened doesn’t mean it belongs in the book. Just because it’s interesting to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting. And because I was focusing specifically on learning how to make a difference in the world, I think subjecting the stories that I was including to remembering what my purpose was — which would be very different than other memoirs’ purposes — I had a very distinct purpose in writing the book.

People are turning away from public service. They don’t believe they can make a difference in their communities. They think the problems are too big. I wanted to write a book that opened up the world of service of different kinds, even of journalism and of teaching as well as of government, and to show that a kind of nobility in effort, if not always, God knows, in outcome, and to show the integrity of that at a time when some of these institutions are being ridiculed.

So I knew my purpose. I think if you know why you’re writing a memoir, and it isn’t just to vent or to get back at somebody or to sell books. If you have a purpose, then to subject what you’re writing to that constant kind of callback. Is it doing any work for my ultimate purpose?

If I look at my Syria chapters, is that an inspiring case of “Here’s why you should go into public service”? Five hundred thousand people died, and you thought you could prevent atrocities, and you go into government. It turns out some conflicts are incredibly complex and maybe beyond your reach or beyond, certainly, the reach of outside actors and so forth.

So why muddy up my happy message about the importance of trying to make a difference with something so complex? Because that’s life. You’re not going to win them all, and you’re not going to be able to, certainly, affect the world in the way that you would like. But the question is, can you make a positive difference enough of the time to make it worth your effort?

Because I knew what I was trying to do with the memoir, to include those cases where I, as a citizen and as an actor in some of this history, where I was crushed and disappointed and flattened by the irrelevance of what I was doing — that proved to be a really important part of, in the end, being able to urge people to get in the fight.

I think the ones that flop or that lose you are ones that either didn’t know why they were doing what they were doing to begin with or lost sight of that someplace along the way.

COWEN: There’s some fairly personal elements to your story. You talk about going to therapy. You talk about the kind of men you dated and what that meant for your life. Were you on the margin of putting more of that in or less of it in? Did you have second thoughts?

POWER: [laughs] I mentioned my sort of meta purpose, which of course evolved as I’ve written the book and become clearer to me than right when I started. But what I saw, I think, in teaching, when I came back to teaching after being a member of President Obama’s cabinet and being in this incredibly blessed position that I was in, was somehow I was now other.

I was somebody who had been a senior official, and I had my act together. Clearly, I must have had my act together, or how could I have been representing the United States at the United Nations? Very much in the same way that I would have seen a Madeleine Albright or a Jeane Kirkpatrick when I was a kid — these iconic women who are out there, standing up to Russia.

That can be very appealing, and some students will come up to me and say, “I want to be America’s ambassador to the UN. How do I go about doing it?” And I’ll say, “Well, not that way, probably.” Because if you focus on the title rather than what you want to do in the world, you’re probably not going to get very far. But some people are drawn to power, to the position or whatever.

I get that, and I want to work with those students, too. But many just think, “I want to try to make a difference, but I don’t know that I could ever be that person. I don’t have my act together to that extent. I don’t have that kind of conviction.”

So the reason I include the personal, and especially the material about self-doubt and about what I call the bat cave, which is my head at times, where the bats are swirling around: “Can I do this?” and “Have I gone too far?” and “Did I go on too long in that meeting with President Obama?” This sort of self-recrimination.

By opening that up, I want young people to know that whatever doubts they’re experiencing, whatever their romantic foibles, that’s what it looks like to grow up. Sometimes you grow up in the public eye. Sometimes you grow up in the confines of your own relationships and your own family and your own home. And I did a bit of both. The idea that my public persona would somehow cause young people to think that I was some other species of person — I did not want that to happen.

To the essence of your question about whether there’s more, there’s always more, Tyler. But yeah, there’s something that happens . . . Oh, this is actually interesting, and somebody pointed this out to me. I would not have picked this up on my own. Lee Siegel, the writer, pointed this out to me.

When you’re writing a memoir, if you’re me anyway, you start pretty boxed up and anxious about using the first person and saying, “Who am I to write a memoir? I didn’t make Middle East peace. What the hell am I doing here?” Start with that disposition. Then you gradually kind of unfurl yourself, and you realize that you have to build the portrait of a character, and the readers have to get to know the writer.

So it becomes almost a literary exercise, but you can’t make anything up because it’s a memoir. So you have to use the material of your life to build a kind of thick portrait that people will get to know and hopefully root for. I wanted people to root for me and the ideals that I had, and I want them to share those ideals, hopefully.

But Lee Siegel pointed out to me that as you unfurl, there comes a moment where you then think that you have to say everything, and you start to just TMI, too much information. And you actually can lose your dignity because you’ve lost your sense . . . You initially had an appropriate sense of what TMI is.

My past, pre-memoir self, I think, is the right balance of what you share and what you don’t share. I share a lot as it is. But then I decided, okay, I was really going to go out there. And then you lose the sense of where the boundaries are, and so to go back over it and to say, “Okay, I want to give enough of a portrait where this is a distinctly human person that the reader gets to know, but also they don’t need to be in my . . .”

What work is every one of these scenes doing for the larger story? And if it doesn’t meet that threshold, and if, let’s say, I’m making the same mistake with different men six times, they only need to hear about it happening once. If I did it five other times, the part can stand for the whole.

On foreign policy

COWEN: For a final closing segment, I just have some super simple questions about foreign policy again. Over the course of the last summer, Iran apparently seized two British tankers. There’ve been other incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in some way connected with Iran. From a game-theoretic point of view, why would they do this? Why does this make sense?

POWER: Well, the one thing that they would know that would give them some point of leverage is the extreme war fatigue within the United States, and really within the Western world. So, by upping the stakes, arguably — I mean, who knows why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing?

But by upping the stakes, they arguably could be sending a signal like, “You want to get in this game? It’s not as if we’re an island and you can just break the deal, penalize us gratuitously, penalize the people who are still trying to maintain the terms of the deal, and that there won’t be collateral consequences outside the nuclear space.”

Because the nuclear consequences, as they begin to enrich and violate the terms of the deal — having legitimately argued that we had violated the terms of the deal — the effects of those are not day-to-day effects in the news world. It’s a bit abstract for the public and even for policymakers. It’s an incremental abrogation.

But acts like this show that they have leverage, that they are active militarily in parts of the world where we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. So I think they’re showing that they can hit in domains outside the nuclear domain. I think that is probably what they’re doing.

COWEN: Why won’t Germany and some of the other larger NATO countries spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense? Germany’s not even coming close. How can that make sense? How can they expect NATO to last? Isn’t NATO a good deal for them? From a game-theoretic point of view, please explain that to me.

POWER: Yeah, I find it outrageous. But I also noticed over the last couple decades that we’re really good at understanding our own domestic politics, and even with some of our closest allies, we tend not to internalize or pay much attention to their constraints.

And the real problem — this isn’t just about defense spending, but there’s a big problem across Europe in that if we were in a world of referenda, I’m not sure many of these European countries would have defense budgets or would even have militaries in some cases. So, if you ask, “Should they?” the answer is, “Unequivocally.” Is it an incredible deal for them? Yes. Should they be alarmed by the fact that successive presidents, who are very different — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump — have all harped on this issue, Trump of course the most vocally and tweet-ily and not, to this point, very effectively.

But nonetheless, we all agree that there has to be burden sharing, and I mentioned earlier a kind of shriveled constituency in the United States that we have to win back. The way we in the United States will build back the kind of foreign policy that our European allies want to see us having is when they find a way to step up and bring their constituents along.

Maybe there’ll be an opening in a post-Trump world where we can, because on some level, we, as American leaders, have to speak directly to the constituents who then elect the parliamentarians who then pass the budgets. It’s not a bunch of dictators who are like, “I’ve done a public opinion poll, and they don’t want to go the full 2 percent.” This is about the chancellor of Germany also has to get that budget through a parliament and a coalition government and so forth.

Again, I’m not an apologist for their politics, but I’m a believer that they need to work a lot harder to try to change their constituencies, just as we’re going to have to do the same on this end.

COWEN: Should the United States have 800 military bases in about 70 countries and territories? Under what theory of the world does that make sense?

POWER: And as I note in my afterword, we are performing some form of counterterrorism operation now in 40 percent of the countries in the world. Of course, not all us performing combat roles or anything like that, but some kind of support or combat role in 40 percent of the countries.

No, there has to be a right sizing for the sake of the families who are the ones who bear this burden because that is not actually the face of America that is the most winning face. Our soldiers, of course, are making an amazing contribution in some of those places, but having these large bases where locals don’t get to even interact that much with our soldiers — it perpetuates a perception of America as a militarized nation.

But also it speaks, I think, to the imbalance that I write about as one of my conclusions in the book. How can it be that we have almost more people serving in military marching bands than serve as diplomats representing the United States when our military leaders are the first to say that they can’t do the conflict resolution, they can’t deal with the underlying socioeconomic or ethnic or other tensions, or the land grabs, or the climate change that shrinks the resources that people are fighting over?

They’re just a set of problems where we need the other tools in our arsenal, and other countries comparably need to expand their diplomatic and socioeconomic benches to be able to pool our resources to make more of a difference to deal with the causes of these conflicts rather than just setting up bases and playing whack-a-mole.

The one thing I will say is that I do think we’re moving into a period where we do need to make investments in state solvency elsewhere. And by “we,” I don’t just mean the United States. I mean the broader international community, such as it is, but with the United States probably, as always, playing a leading role.

One reason that we’re constantly asking about humanitarian intervention or why we have 100,000 peacekeepers in countries around the world is that the militaries in those countries are either preying on their people or are incapable of — take Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad — incapable of thwarting Boko Haram, which is preying on the people.

Indeed, the militaries are so either corrupt or abusive themselves that they end up fueling or effectively aiding the Boko Haram recruitment process by committing such human rights abuses that people say, “There’s no difference between the Nigerian army and Boko Haram,” which can’t be the case.

So, even though it can sound like militarization, we have some of the best trainers in the world. I think we should be more, not less, ambitious working with other countries’ militaries.

And there’s a real gap in the international system around police. There’s actually very, very scant police training capability. If you think about global goods and collective goods, training other cities’ or other countries’ police forces, depending on how the police are structured, is an incredibly important investment in the rule of law, or prodding them to train their own police, or for themselves to hold their own soldiers accountable.

I think that you could imagine some of the resources that are now expended in places where we’re in combat that the American people don’t even know about. But to actually invest alongside other countries in professionalizing some of these training apparatuses — I think that would be a worthwhile investment.

COWEN: Last question: The US Congress seems to have voluntarily surrendered so much of its authority over foreign policy, and indeed the war-making authority. How do we fix that? Should we fix it? And does fixing it mean we won’t get to undertake as many beneficial humanitarian interventions as otherwise?

POWER: I think the fact that our military is active in as many conflicts in the world today and that we have not been able to secure from the US Congress an authorization for the use of force, effectively since — depending on how you date the authorities under which our current soldiers are operating — 2001 in the wake of 9/11 and then the flawed vote on behalf of the Iraq War. That’s 16 years.

We’re going on two decades since the 9/11 authorization under which most of our operations abroad are being waged. It’s a failure to perform Congress’s duty as stipulated under the Constitution and, I think, under the War Powers Resolution as well, but it’s also such a disservice to our troops and their families.

We say that we’re all for the troops and we’re giving the troops this and we’re giving the troops that. We fail them consistently on benefits, and we fail them in overseeing how their lives are being spent, and by “spent,” for the most part, I mean how their days are being spent, where they’re being deployed.

That conversation has not happened domestically in too long. So yes, if you did a referendum of the American people, or if that were played out as we saw in the Syria red-line episode, I think you would see great skepticism about the use of force. I think there should be great skepticism in many, many cases when our vital national interests are not involved.

But if you see a circumstance like the Ebola outbreak, where we used our military in such a constructive way, and where we did a congressional notification, but because that didn’t really rise to the level of war, we weren’t engaged in combat at all. But it’s an example where, if Congress were playing in the larger space of the deployment of our military generally, we could have had a constructive and maybe, in some ideal world, eventually a bipartisan discussion of why problems that happen over there matter to us over here.

Instead, the Obama administration carried out the intervention in support of the local efforts on the ground, which were heroic and dauntingly complex. And because of our polarization problem, which we haven’t talked about, Republicans, by and large on party lines, basically sniped at, criticized, undermined, threatened to quarantine even those American heroes who went over to be part of the intervention.

And it’s funny. For all of the valorization of what our troops do, there’s a carveout for Ebola because it was Obama’s successful intervention to end a major public health calamity, and they decided that the politics of supporting that weren’t good or whatever.

In general, we need more buy-in for our foreign policy. And given the large weight that the US military is carrying in shouldering the foreign policy burden, that oversight role is incredibly important.

If we could somehow return to a time where Republicans didn’t snipe at what Democrats did . . . I hope we’re still in a world where Democrats, if Trump did something . . . I think you saw this with the Syria chemical weapons response, that some Democrats came out in favor of that because it’s something they had favored Obama doing, and they were consistent. But probably the fact that it was Trump doing it overrode their cost-benefit of the action itself. It proved not to be a terribly effective action over time anyway.

But when our lives are at stake, the lives of our soldiers are at stake, but also when American lives are at stake — which is what is at stake in many foreign policy decisions — I just wish we could return to the Nunn-Lugar era of bipartisanship, where we could work on really hard problems together.

If you had that kind of backdrop, then you could imagine more congressional oversight but also not the evisceration of our foreign policy generally. So we are in a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation where polarization makes the prospect of securing congressional authorization for anything large harder to imagine. But that gets back to the first principle, where we have to deal with our polarization and start working together on issues of all stripes.

COWEN: I recommend to you all Samantha’s new memoir, The Education of an Idealist, and thank you very much, Samantha Power.

POWER: Great to be here, Tyler.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

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The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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