Over this past week, Ambassador Samantha Power visited Stanford to deliver the 2018 Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Organized by the Center for Ethics in Society and the Office of the President, the three-day event comprised of two lectures and a discussion seminar, where the Stanford community had the opportunity to engage with the Ambassador. Often considered to be the moral compass of American diplomacy, Samantha Power served as a member of Obama’s cabinet, after receiving widespread acclaim for her journalism and Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. In 2013, Power became US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, becoming the youngest-ever US ambassador to the UN.
Power has spent much of her career, both as a critic of U.S. foreign policy and as a U.S. government official, focusing on some of the darkest parts of humanity. To conclude the Thursday March 1st lecture, Power quoted German economist and sociologist Max Weber’s words from a lecture series he delivered in Munich: “Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘nevertheless,’ has the calling for politics.” And, ultimately, those words perhaps best summarize the theme and key takeaway from Samantha Power’s main message over the three days: the idea that we, as individuals, must maintain optimism in the face of darkness, injustice, and intolerance. Throughout her speeches, she stated that American leadership in world politics and human rights should be redefined. It need not be through sweeping government actions but also through the small incremental victories of grass-roots activism by a group of individuals.
In her first lecture on Wednesday evening, “Resisters in Dark Times”, Samantha Power chose to focus on three moments in American history that are marked by unique injustice and fear: the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era, and the early days of the AIDS crisis. She began by noting an interesting tendency: that when faced with darkness, there is a human desire to focus on “dark periods of our past for insight and parallels.” Yet, Power would use these negative historical examples in which government policies and officials had gone wrong to highlight the efforts of individuals, the small victories of ordinary Americans.
Power’s first example of activism was that of the National Japanese Student Relocation Council during World War II. At a time when a LA Timessurvey found that ninety-three percent of Americans would favor the deportation of Japanese-Americans, a small effort emerged to help Japanese university students avoid being sent to labor camps. In the midst of exacerbated anti-Japanese sentiment and the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, the group was able to transcend the hatred in order to help more than four thousand students.
Power argued that similar efforts by individuals persisted during a vociferous campaign against alleged communists in the US in the 1950s during the McCarthy era. During a time of increasing frenzy over communist infiltration into public life, the Seditious Activities Investigation Commission requested a series of measures to rid the United States of communists, including requiring “non-Communist oaths” from academics, and making the support of communism a felony. Throughout the rampant hysteria, however, Power notes that some individuals remained faithful to the American ideal of freedom. Confronting the immense pressure being deemed “Un-American” by a majority of the public, University of Chicago chancellor Robert Hutchins was called to the witness stand, and denounced the actions of the committee. Stating that “the University of Chicago does not believe in guilt by association,” he vehemently opposed all charges made against him and other professors, defining freedom of belief as a pillar of what it means to be an American.
The final “bright pocket” that Samantha Power discussed was the success of ACT UP, an NGO who committed to advocating for new legislation, medical research and policies to mitigate the loss of lives due to the AIDS pandemic. Power criticized the inaction of the Reagan administration, and stated that ACT UP rose to prominence at a time when the alarming spread of AIDS was either dismissed by government officials or met with outwardly hateful homophobic jokes. The final example that Power discussed was the fact that the 350 people or so, whom had initially supported ACT UP, were able to catalyze real policy change, by mobilizing large public protests against the FDA and advocating for the implementation of the Drug Buddy System in order to make the drug testing process more efficient.
To conclude, Power explained that these three examples can guide us back to “our moral anchor.” She argued that the Japanese Relocation Council demonstrated the efficacy of small, persistent efforts in the face of discrimination. The statements of University of Chicago professors highlighted that problems must be tackled head-on by reclaiming American principles. Finally, ACT UP shows us the power of ordinary non-experts who are determined to get involved and teach themselves the facts. Her statements were then echoed in a response delivered by journalist and author Rebecca Solnit, who suggested that within the modern context, there is a possibility of non-traditional activism, enabling a group of small people to galvanize many.
The Wednesday lecture left no question that Samantha Power believes the current Trump administration is a moment of “darkness” in modern-day diplomacy; therefore, in the Thursday lecture, she focused on how American diplomacy must evolve in the coming years. Power argued that the world would be confronted by a “crisis of confidence” due to “Trump’s wrecking ball,” including his treatment of China and Russia and his reversal of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. As a result, she asserted that we had entered a “crucial period,” one in which the new administration would have to work harder than ever before to restore faith in the system. “Can America recover?” she asked. Her own answer was that we can, but only if our future diplomacy is one of substantive rather than transactional engagement: “a diplomacy of light in a world of darkness”.
According to Power, such a shift would involve three main changes: the restoration of faith of key constituents in the role of the United States in the world, the modernization of policy approaches, and a redefinition of the how/who of diplomacy. In her discussion, she mentioned the need to prioritize cyber and other technology issues, as well as to make a clear distinction between China and Russia due to the differentiation of their interests. The Lecture's responder, Robert Keohane, FSI Scholar and Professor of Public and International Affairs (Emeritus) in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, expressed similar concerns regarding the Trump administration, and mentioned the role of universities in helping America renew its diplomacy.
The final event on Friday was a panel discussion seminar at which Samantha Power was joined by Michael Blake, Professor of Philosophy, Public Policy, and Governance at the University of Washington, and Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First. Blake introduced a fair amount of pessimism to the debate by underlining the differences between the time periods in which the small victories mentioned by Power occurred, and our modern-day context. He argued that in our contemporary political situation, there is a lack of political deliberation and shared epistemic standards. He concluded that a change on the political system will also depend on luck, and that there are risks for too much optimism because America needs to be reinforced as a source of values and of objective truth. Massimino’s perspective differed in her conviction that American leadership does not have to come from politicians, and that there is an upsurge of promising activism and advocacy. Power’s response to the responders commented on the diminishment of intellectual humility, and discussed the context of American exceptionalism now and during the Obama administration.
Near the end of her final discussion, Power continued to maintain her inspirational optimism, joking that being a pessimist “would just mean losing twice.” Although there may be disagreement over Power’s foreign policy and her decisions as part of the Obama Administration, one thing is certain: she believes that in order for politics to be productive, politicians and citizens alike need to combat the human desire to resort to cynicism. When she left campus on Friday, Power left her audience with the conviction that light, no matter how dim it may seem, is our only real hope for transformation and growth out of darkness, and that both citizens and politicians must be willing to say “nevertheless”.