Nation & World

Power sees U.S. foreign policy on steep downhill slide

5 min read

On Aug. 19, 2003, the first suicide bomb to hit Iraq went off with a roar at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, where the United Nations had been encamped for a dozen years. Among the dead was a Brazilian diplomat, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the UN high commissioner for Human Rights.

“It went all downhill from there,” said Harvard scholar Samantha Power J.D. ’99. The truck bomb that killed 22 people also, Power averred, killed hopes for peace. Power is an Ireland-born former war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner who after four years is just finishing a political biography of de Mello.

At a lunchtime talk on Feb. 12, the Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy used the humanitarian diplomat’s violent demise to open a discussion of how far downhill things have gone – for U.S. foreign policy, for the press, and for human rights. To listen, about 80 people crowded into a small classroom at the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Taubman Building.

“U.S. power is on the wane at a precipitous pace,” said Power in the talk’s opening minute, and that is “the first essential trend” affecting those three intersecting issues. America’s hard military power, along with U.S. economic and technical prowess, is still intact. But the best way to measure power in the 21st century is not by dollars or bullets, she suggested, but by influence.

To see how American influence has declined, said Power, “you only have to look at the box scores around the world today.” A missile test in North Korea, a defiantly nuclear Iran, and an unstable Iraq all challenge the influence, legitimacy, and competence of the United States on the global stage.

“We don’t feel like the country that put the man on the moon any more,” said Power. “We feel like the country of Katrina and Iraq.”

Waning U.S. influence has sparked a second trend, Power asserted. Freedom is backsliding in nations that once showed democratic promise. This is especially vivid in oil-rich Russia and Venezuela, said Power, where “petro-authoritarianism” is getting little of the international scrutiny the United States might once have demanded. “The backdoor route,” said Power of U.S. diplomatic channels, “is not working anymore.”

Foreign policy, the press, and human rights intersect in a third trend, said Power – an increasing sense of vulnerability in the United States itself, where personal freedoms and freedom of the press are, in Power’s view, being scaled back. With reporters at risk, human rights abuses are unlikely to be reported.

U.S. politicians will often not go after “the thing that was disclosed” in the press, said Power, “but the person who is doing the disclosing.” Journalists – fearful of subpoenas, she said – are starting to tear up their notebooks.

But even if good journalism is done, how is it used? Not very well, said Power, who was surprised enough by abuses of power during her time inside the beltway that, she called a recent sojourn there “Miss Power Goes to Washington,” likening herself to the incorruptible Washington outsider played by James Stewart in the classic 1939 film.

The work of U.S. investigative journalists used to be a spur to political action. Now their work, Power contended, is often greeted by threats of arrest or investigation. The United States “used to be a place of one-stop shopping – if you wanted to see genocide stop, this was where you would write,” said Power, author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (Basic Books, 2002). “I think that’s different now.”

When Washington Post reporter Dana Priest broke the story of CIA secret prisons in 2005, “I thought someone up on Capitol Hill would take it and say ‘Stop the presses’,” said Power.

That did not happen, she said. Instead, then-Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., called for an investigation – of Dana Priest.

Access for the press is different too, and more limited. The danger of operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots is no longer softened by the covert power or influence of the United States. In fact, Western journalists are increasingly not seen as neutral observers, but as players on the side of America’s blunt military force.

In another way, nations once awed by back-channel U.S. power are now defiant. In the past, the United States would often stand up for press freedom and press access, said Power, who is just back from a stint in Washington, D.C, as an adviser to Democrat presidential hopeful Barack Obama. “There was a sense that someone was watching from outside.”

Now a nation like Sudan “just laughs at the protests by U.S. officials at the lethargy with which visas are granted” to journalists, said Power. For reporters, she said, “it’s death by a thousand paper cuts.”

The intersecting challenges that face the press, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy all require at least one thing, said Power, “a recalibration of words” that had been appropriated by the Bush White House. Words like “democracy and dignity and liberty.”

Perhaps this can all happen “in an Obama White House,” said Power.

The junior senator from Illinois, she said, “gives you the best leap forward” to reconfigure U.S. policy, and counter global perceptions of U.S. arrogance and insularity. For one, Obama is a mobile United Nations. He speaks Bahasa, the language of Indonesia, where he studied as a boy. He has roots in Africa, and grew up in middle-class white America. For another, Obama is so far untainted by Washington, D.C., power struggles.

Even before the Iraq war, U.S. geopolitical influence was in decline – but “blunders” of the last five years have eroded that influence faster than ever, said Power. “We need to get the City on the Hill back.”