With unblinking frankness, Samantha Power seamlessly weaves the story of her personal life, her diplomatic career and her moral quandaries into her memoir, “The Education of an Idealist.”
In the early chapters, the journalist/diplomat recounts her messy childhood in Ireland as the daughter of an alcoholic father and a physician mother. At age nine, Samantha and her mother escaped to the United States; mother and father were soon divorced. Throughout the book, Power also shares delightful stories about her family consisting of her husband, Cass Sunstein and two children.
After describing her early years, Power reflects on what she has learned from a distinguished career as a journalist and U.S. diplomat. Driven to be on the front lines of breaking news, Power slipped into the office of a Foreign Policy editor, grabbed some letterhead and wrote a letter “to the head of the UN Press Office, asking that the UN provide Samantha Power, Foreign Policy’s ‘Balkan Correspondent’ with ‘all necessary access.’”
Her stealth behavior elicited some guilt, “but I also had what I needed to obtain my press pass.” Power flew to Yugoslavia just in time to observe the soft power of American diplomacy at work. The war in Bosnia did not end by military might on the part of the United States and NATO, but instead “by executing unrelenting diplomatic pressure on both sides.” This education about soft power was invaluable when she became policy adviser for Barack Obama whose foreign policy relied more on diplomacy than military hardware.
This autobiography is heavily weighted to the time Power spent as United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Power educates readers about the many crises in the world. Her passion for using American power to protect civilians and encourage human rights is stimulating and moving. As an idealist, Power reveals the inner turmoil she felt when she settled for concessions, compromises and power sharing in order to complete complex international policy negotiations. She reluctantly, but wisely, moved from being an inflexible idealist, to becoming a realistic, proficient and temperate policymaker.
The author’s honesty is absolutely refreshing. A humorous incident occurs when she is nursing her second child and Secretary of State John Kerry calls to discuss an international policy issue. When he asks, “What is that noise?” their interchange is amusing, but real, and splendidly demonstrates the challenges of simultaneously being a mother and career woman.
One of the most transfixing chapters depicts Power working on Obama’s presidential campaign and calling Hillary Clinton “a monster” during a media blitz to tout her book. This unfortunate comment went viral and became such a distraction that candidate Obama asked her to resign from the campaign. Power eventually had a private meeting with Clinton to apologize, which quieted the press, making it possible for the campaign to move forward.
The most poignant of the ambassador’s recollections is found in the chapter entitled “Toussaint.” In 2016, Power visited Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, “to meet with people on the front lines of the fight” against the Boko Haram. This terrorist group had kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls and Power wanted to draw international attention to the heinous crime. It was a perilous trip that required 14 armored vehicles.
As Power left the village, an aide whispered to her: “As we were driving here our car hit a young boy.” The boy, Toussaint was killed. “Had we not come,” she writes, “a six-year-old boy would still be alive.” The trip helped Power to lobby the United Nations for $168 million in humanitarian assistance for people threatened by Boko Haram, but Power raises the moral question “Was it worth it since it resulted in the death of a young child?” Many incidents in her memoir elucidate moral dilemmas. Power provides no answers, but leaves each moral judgment up to the reader.
The ambassador obviously thinks highly of Barack Obama, but she holds nothing back in criticizing some of his decisions. She disapproves of Obama’s broken campaign promise to recognize the Armenian genocide. She is also critical of the former President for not providing stronger leadership on refugee resettlement, aid for rape victims, protection for persecuted LGBT populations, relief for political prisoners and justice for oppressed minorities.
This is a wonderful book, one I heartily recommend as a good read for any compassionate, intellectually attentive reader trying to process the complex issues of today’s world. The moral arguments it raises provide an opportunity to ponder the complex foreign policy issues that each conscientious citizen must address daily. Power hopes the book will convince readers that when there is an injustice in the world, the United States has a moral imperative to act.
Samantha Power began her career as a journalist by reporting on the genocide of Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs. This immersion in warfare led her to write the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning book, “‘A Problem from Hell’: America in the Age of Genocide.” That award winner explored the question “Why do American leaders who vow, ‘never again’ continually fail to stop genocides?”