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April 22, 2016
In her 2019 memoir, “The Education of an Idealist,” Samantha Power, who emigrated from Ireland as a child, described how she knew, even before being naturalized, that she had become an American. “I now thought like an American, reacting to problems in the world — like the Bosnia war — by asking myself, ‘What, if anything, can we, America, do about it?’”
That question has animated Power’s epic career, which has stretched from war correspondent to United Nations ambassador to, now, head of the United States Agency for International Development, the government agency devoted to foreign aid. It was a question that a lot of liberal-minded people asked themselves in the 1990s. Back then, elite conventional wisdom held that America’s failure to try to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was a moral catastrophe; it was partly the shame of that episode that led Bill Clinton to eventually intervene in Kosovo.
With her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” Power became the poster child for liberal interventionism, the conviction that it was America’s responsibility to prevent atrocities abroad. Even after liberal interventionism was misused to sell the Iraq war, which Power opposed, she retained faith in the humanitarian possibilities of an assertive American foreign policy.
Such faith used to dominate both parties, but in recent years it has eroded. Conventional wisdom now holds that America’s 2011 intervention in Libya, which Power supported, was a strategic catastrophe. The Republican Party largely fell in line behind Donald Trump’s isolationist dictator worship. On much of the left, America’s colonialist malevolence is taken for granted. Voters are understandably consumed by domestic crises. We live in an age of horrors, including China’s genocide of the Uyghurs and mass atrocities and starvation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, but few people expect the United States to do much about it.
President Biden, however, is still a believer. He wants to restore America’s international leadership, although without constantly projecting military force. When he chose Power to helm U.S.A.I.D. — a job that has not, in the past, been particularly high profile — he sent a message to the world that humanitarian aid would be central to his foreign policy. Power is by far the best-known person ever to serve as U.S.A.I.D. administrator, and because Biden has elevated her position to the National Security Council, she’ll likely be the most powerful.
Don Steinberg, a deputy U.S.A.I.D. administrator during the Obama administration, said he was “delighted” when Power was named. For the first time, he said, the head of the agency would be able to talk to senior government officials as equals. None of Power’s predecessors “could pick up the phone and call the president of the United States at that time,” he told me. “None of them could walk into an N.S.C. meeting and not have to clear what he or she said with State Department.” None of them, he said, “would be able to stand up to a four-star general or an intelligence officer saying, ‘You guys just don’t get it.’ And Samantha can.”
Not that Power wants to start fights. When I spoke to her in Washington this month, she was more interested in talking about American know-how than pontificating about American values. Power believes that Trump made the United States look hapless as well as callous, and that at a time when people around the world are losing faith in democracy, America needs to prove it has not just the willingness but also the competence to help other countries. She’s known as a crusader, but the chastening catastrophe of the Trump years turned her into a technocrat.
“I’m at an agency that is about advancing citizens’ prospects for economic development, for being able to send their kids to school, for being able to get vaccinated, so almost inevitably I’m focused on those things,” she said. “But as it happens, as a citizen, I think that’s what America can best be focused on now. Because we’ve still got it.”
The first big test of this lies in what America does to help vaccinate the rest of the world against Covid-19. “This is the place where you can show tangible results on the ground,” said Power. “It’s not about saying democracy is better. It’s not about an expressive agenda. It’s about a very, very tangible results-based agenda, and coming in after people have felt the absence of that leadership, the absence of that catalytic power and the absence of that belief that our fates are connected.”
When we spoke, Power promised there would be a big announcement about vaccines at the Group of 7 meeting that took place last week. Last Thursday, Biden said that the United States would donate half a billion vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries through Covax, the international vaccine-sharing initiative that Trump refused to join. It would be the biggest vaccine donation any country has made so far and spurred other countries to step up their contributions. By the end of the meeting, leaders had pledged a billion doses by 2022.
Biden’s commitment still isn’t enough — and it’s not the sum of America’s work on vaccines, which also involves trying to help build manufacturing capacity in developing countries — but it showed what a difference American leadership makes. Power described it as “a major down payment on Biden’s pledge to become an arsenal of vaccines for the world.”
While Covid is the planet’s most immediate crisis, it’s far from the only one. At her confirmation hearing Power spoke of “four interconnected and gargantuan challenges confronting the world at this moment.” In addition to Covid, these are climate change, conflict and state collapse, and democratic backsliding.
During the Trump years, Power said, U.S.A.I.D. wasn’t allowed to use the term “climate change.” “Imagine you work for this agency, you see the planet getting warmer every day, you see more conflict caused by climate every year, you see more displacement caused by climate, you do the emergency response, you have to feed the people who’ve been displaced, and you can’t use the words ‘climate change’ in the agency,” she said.
Power has to contend not just with the damage Trump did to America’s place in the world but also with the damage he did to U.S.A.I.D. By most accounts, Trump’s first U.S.A.I.D. administrator, Mark Green, was able to protect the agency, but after Green resigned last year, things started to fall apart.
The administration installed a loyalist named John Barsa and sent far-right operatives to work under him, including Merritt Corrigan, who once denounced liberal democracy and called Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban “the shining champion of Western civilization,” and Mark Kevin Lloyd, a religious freedom adviser with a history of wildly Islamophobic Facebook posts. (Corrigan’s firing was announced after she sent a burst of tweets blasting gay rights, Democrats and U.S.A.I.D. itself.)
A Trump appointee on a bureau dealing with democracy globally — one who preceded Barsa — claimed that the 2020 election was rigged. Another described the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as a mostly peaceful crowd “committed to electoral reform.”
“There is a very clear sense that we lost four years of progress,” said Steinberg. “And now the question is, can you revive this under American leadership and cooperation, given the growing challenges of conflict and climate change and Covid?”
Steinberg’s not sure. He compares U.S.A.I.D. to a lion that’s been in a cage so long, it stays put even when the door is open. He said: “That’s my biggest concern about what A.I.D. is going to be. Are they going to be capable of meeting our collective — and Samantha’s specific — expectations of playing in this area?” Big national ambitions are risky. But in a world as broken as ours, so is the lack of them.
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