Peterson: Idealism amid the competing interests of foreign policy

  • Keith Peterson

    Keith Peterson

By Keith Peterson
Guest columnist
Posted10/20/2019 1:00 AM

Samantha Power came to prominence when she authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Problem from hell: America and the Age of Genocide" in 2003, which examined how America -- with all its power -- had responded to genocide from World War II Germany to Cambodia, to Iraq, to Bosnia, to Rwanda, to Kosovo.

Her involvement in foreign policy, first as a journalist and author and later as a diplomat, led her to the post of America's ambassador to the United Nations during President Barack Obama's second term.


Last week, Power was at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to discuss her new book "The Education of an Idealist," which lays out in rich and sometimes very personal detail how many of the foreign policy problems we confront today, while not straight from hell, are at least from an adjacent ZIP code.

For example, in her book and her remarks, she admits that the Obama Administration could and should have made different decisions in Syria -- despite the lack of support from the Congress, the kaleidoscope of militias engaged in the conflict and the connection to the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran, which at that moment were still secret.

As others have pointed out, it was not a choice between good and bad, but a choice between less bad, bad and worse. Many of the foreign policy problems we face today fall into that category.

Today, Power teaches at Harvard, but she has not stopped wrestling with difficult foreign policy problems or the process of policy formation, which, at times, could be characterized as a "scrum" of competing interests.

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For example, with the rise of populism, how does one combat the kind of fear mongering that overwhelms reasoned, fact-based debate, provokes emotional responses, creates suspicion, erodes trust in expertise, and -- in the end -- makes political consensus and forward movement virtually impossible?

Power, thinking out loud, wondered if Republican Congressional leaders has been brought into the early, secret stages of the Iran nuclear talks, whether political support and consensus could have been built from the inside. Or would leaks have destroyed the negotiations before they gained any momentum, given how long it took to build trust with the Iranians?

As a former Obama Administration official, she might be expected to be critical of the Donald Trump Administration's foreign policy but she gave the president his due on the issue of North Korea. She was not supportive of entering into negotiations at the highest level without adequate preparatory work, but given the failure of earlier efforts to broker at deal with North Korea, she thought the president's willingness to take risks for a deal was important. There are, she argued, opportunity costs when you don't engage with unsavory regimes just because they are unsavory.

As the title of her memoir suggests, she still considers herself an idealist and hopes that in the future the American brand will be seen as one that stands up for human rights and democratic values.


She argues that while America's military power is great and sometimes must be used --- unlike some progressives who are against the use of force in all cases -- at the end of the day, force rarely solves the fundamental problem at the root of a conflict.

As she spoke last week and as I read her book, it occurred to me that the Trump Administration's realist/transactional foreign policy, devoid of values beyond an ill-defined "America first," more resembles Chinese or Russian foreign policies in character than that of Ronald Reagan's "shining city on a hill" or the "freedom speech" of George W. Bush's second inaugural.

As Power demonstrates, however, there are still idealists willing to give the pendulum a good shove in the other direction.

Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.

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