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Samantha Power and Henry Kissinger: Polar Opposites?

From the Balkans and Iraq to Libya: How important are morals in foreign policy making?

July 16, 2016

From the Balkans and Iraq to Libya: How important are morals in foreign policy making?

In the firmament of modern U.S. foreign policy, it is hard to imagine two pivotal policymakers that would seem to be more polar opposites than Samantha Power and Henry A. Kissinger.

One is the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a fervent proponent of of proactive foreign policy in defense of human rights.

The other is a former U.S. National Secutiry Advisor and Secretary of State. Liberal idealism here and the very personification of “Realpolitik” there.

No surprise then that when I was told Samantha would be honored in Berlin with the Henry A. Kissinger Prize, awarded annually by the American Academy in Berlin, it just didn’t quite make sense to me.

I was not the only one to have this somewhat puzzled reaction. I called Samantha a few days later and told her how surprised I had been.

She said: “No worries, Christoph. Henry and I were equally astonished. In fact, Henry was wondering whose career will be more negatively affected by this — his or mine!”

Since I had been asked to give the award speech in honor of Samantha Power, I started digging a little deeper and found out how much the Ambassador and the elder statesman have in common.

Biographical parallels

Both came to the United States as children. Both made it to the top. Both have a history as Harvard scholars. Both are celebrated authors of best-selling books. Both have a passion for sports, especially baseball.

But this is where the comparisons end for now: Henry Kissinger has been a passionate fan of the New York Yankees since his childhood days.

Samantha is a die-hard and enthusiastic supporter of the Red Sox, the Boston team. If you are not a baseball aficionado, suffice it to say that this entails an arch rivalry in the sport.

Many things in life come down to biography. The story of Samantha Power is also celebrating a very American story. At the age of 42, she became the youngest-ever U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. But her rise to this high and very prestigious post was certainly not preordained.

At the age of nine, Samantha Power had left Dublin and her native country of Ireland with her mother under difficult circumstances and immigrated to the United States.

Samantha took advantage of every opportunity available to her in the New World. After graduating from high school, she spent formative years at Yale. An internship at an elite think tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, led her to journalism.

More specifically, it marked the start of defining years for her, both politically and as a writer. If one now reads her reports from the Serbian-Bosnian ethnic war in former Yugoslavia, from the conflicts in East Timor or – perhaps most powerfully – from Rwanda, one can chart the emergence of the political thinker with whom we now associate Samantha Power’s name in particular.

It is that historic episode and her deep understanding of it that makes her such a vocal advocate of military intervention on moral grounds, albeit as a last resort.

Her skill as a journalist, along with the ease and power with which she keeps her readers and listeners spellbound, is reflected in her speeches and statements.

Her political thinking continued to mature, particularly during her years as a scholar and professor at Harvard. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, from 2002, has already become a modern classic of political thought.

In her book, Samantha Power takes us on a grim journey through the recent history of genocides and an alleged failure of U.S. foreign policy in the face of atrocities.

“A Problem from Hell” is a self-critical and controversial book. It admonishes, exhorts, shocks, galvanizes, grips, and inspires us.

But one thing this book for sure is not. And this is perhaps its real merit—it is not a resigned book. It does not concede to “political realities” in the face of forces and circumstances that seem stronger than those who are responsible for taking political action.

Samantha’s book calls on us not to resign ourselves, not to fall victim to the mistaken belief that we cannot change things anyway. “Don’t check the weather,” Samantha later said in her own special style in an interview on Charlie Rose. “Don’t live in the land of possible. Push!”

A book as a game changer

In many ways, “A Problem from Hell” was a game-changer in Samantha’s life. A young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, was attracted by the book, interviewed Samantha and consequently made her part of his campaign team.

Once elected, President Obama appointed Samantha Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, serving in the National Security Council in the White House.

In the summer of 2013, she was promoted to became the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, following a tough hearing at the U.S. Senate that finally ended in a vote 87 to 10. At a time of entrenched partisan divisions on Capitol Hill, this speaks for itself.

Samantha’s working methods are described as “utterly relentless,” “absolutely fearless,” “passionate and compassionate.” She can also work on a given subject “like a dog chewing a bone.” (In the intense policymaking world of Washington, D.C., that is considered a compliment!)

The Libya episode

In March 2011, the world was confronted with a new “problem from hell.” Troops loyal to Libyan dictator Gaddafi were marching towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

Gaddafi left no doubt whatever about how he intended to lead this campaign. “There will be no mercy,” he said. He would destroy the rebels, “alley by alley, house by house, room by room.”

Samantha Power was one of the leading voices among the key U.S. decision-makers of the time to staunchly advocate military intervention by the United States and NATO in view of the foreseeable tragedy.

Given the difficult situation in the country today, the Libya intervention, which was based on UN Security Council Resolutions and led to Gaddafi’s end, is often seen as proof that “liberal” moral notions do not work in real-life politics.

And indeed: Didn’t President Obama himself admit in his much-cited interview with the New Yorker that mistakes had been made as regards Libya? And didn’t the name “Power” stand for optimistic liberal interventionism, whose failure is currently manifesting itself to the world?

I firmly believe that this criticism is mistaken, regardless of how much views on Libya and the liberal interventionist model can differ.

It’s a long time since Samantha Power had been – if indeed she ever was – the “activist-in-chief” (as Madeleine Albright once summed up a commonly held bias against her).

Kissinger as crown witness

She may have had over 100,000 followers on Twitter, but was – I quote – “one of the liberals who know their emotions better than their analysis.” (And guess who said that? Yes – it was Henry Kissinger!)

On the contrary, rigorous liberalism and the downplaying of “realism” may perhaps have been typical of Samantha Power when she was a young researcher and committed reporter.

But she has long since discarded such one-sided notions. Her keen intelligence does not allow for emotions to dominate her thinking.

If you don’t believe me, here is what Henry Kissinger says about her today. “She has an excellent analytical mind… She knew the difference between being a professor and being a policymaker.”

Coming from a top-notch policymaker and professor, that’s quite a compliment.

Regardless of where one stands on the military intervention in Libya, I think it is important to note that the decision to use military force in view of a new “problem from hell” goes beyond categorization under the term “humanitarian interventionism” and simple choices in general.

A complicated reality does not allow for black and white, not even right or wrong, liberalism or realism.

Morals vs. realism

This brings me to my key point. If morals and realism actually form the opposite poles that we initially thought were represented by Samantha Power and Henry Kissinger — how important are morals fundamentally in foreign policy?

This question applies to the foreign policy of the United States, of Germany and what we generally refer to as the free world.

To me, the answer is clear. If our foreign policy does not take the individual and his or her freedom, dignity and uniqueness as a benchmark, then we will not live up to the moral categories and values that we as “the West” stood and stand for.

On the other hand, if we neglect reason, the idea of respice finem (=think about the ultimate goal of it all), and the totality of our interests, we are certain to fail.

Rational analytical policies, along with an unwavering moral compass, are what define our transatlantic common ground. That is what we mean if we speak of our community of shared values.

It is in this very spirit that we are now working together to search for solutions to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – aggression that both severely damages our security interests and contravenes what is ultimately our moral demand that borders be inviolable.

It is Russia that clearly violated international law and the post-Cold War European order. If we believe in the strength of the law and not the law of the strongest, we must not give in to economic interests.

Instead, we must continue to apply sanctions until the Minsk Agreement has been fully implemented. And we must not accept the annexation by Russia of Crimea. At the same time, we have to engage with Russia to find a way out of the present deadlock.

Standing by our values

It is in the same spirit that we are now working together in the fight against the so-called “Islamic State,” which – in President Obama’s words – is both a “brand of evil” and very seriously damages our Western interest in stability and orderly conditions in the Middle East.

And it is in this very spirit that we are working together as transatlantic partners to solve the refugee crisis, in which we can no longer separate the dimension of human suffering from the issue of long- term political stability in Europe.

We had and have a moral obligation to look after the individual victims of warfare, stranded in Europe, the Middle East or Africa.

But we also have to fight human traffickers and organized criminals and most importantly we have to fight together against the reasons for the flow of refugees: bad governance, ethnic and religious conflicts and climate change.

How we stand by our values and how we bring them in line with our interests will be something we will be judged on as foreign policy makers.

Samantha Power understands this instinctively. She is a passionate patriot and she cares about America’s reputation in the world. She weighs carefully to what end the U.S. government deploys its unrivalled military power.

To her everlasting credit, she also cares profoundly about America’s image in the world when America does not act, even in the face of looming tragedies. And she thinks about conclusions that America’s enemies would draw from a United States not wanting or not being able to take action.

This is very valid and fundamentally a realpolitik consideration. It takes people like Samantha with all their brilliance, fearlessness, moral compass and political and intellectual passion to remind us that our decisions in the end affect the life of people – families, parents, brothers, and sisters – wherever we act.

Editor’s Note: Adapted from a speech given by the author in honor of Ambassador Samantha Power at the Henry A. Kissinger Prize award ceremony American Academy in Berlin, June 8, 2016


Samantha Power and Henry Kissinger have more in common than meets the eye.

How important are morals fundamentally in foreign policy?

If we believe in the strength of the law and not the law of the strongest, we must not give in to economic interests.

We have a moral obligation to look after the victims of warfare, stranded in Europe, Middle East or Africa.

We have to fight against the reasons for the flow of refugees: bad governance, religious conflicts and climate change.