Samantha Power Is Skeptical of United Nations’ Strength

Obama's nominee for U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, realized the limits of the international organization's effectiveness firsthand during the Bosnian war.

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Jason Reed / REUTERS

Samantha Power (R), nominated to be the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, June 5, 2013.

In 2002 Samantha Power, Obama’s new choice for ambassador to the United Nations, published “A Problem from Hell.” It was remarkable in that it called America’s indifference to genocide a “success” for politicians who favored self-interest over humanity. As she writes in the preface, “No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.”

Obama faces the same political reality as his predecessors. So despite picking Power, he may be no more likely to intervene in future cases of genocide, or in current war-torn areas like Syria. And even if Power got her way, history suggests that a major U.S. humanitarian effort would not start with the UN, as Power has accepted a role in which she believes she has little power. As Laura Secor wrote in the New York Times after the release of “A Problem from Hell, “Power appears to have given up on international institutions. She does not argue for empowering them, for liberating them from the narrow interests of the powerful or for altering their terms of engagement in genocidal conflicts. Instead, she presses for the United States to act like something other than the self-interested superpower it is.”

Maybe the “Interventionsta!” enjoys a challenge. Power certainly will not be wide-eyed. Here are a few passages from “A Problem from Hell” that demonstrate her skepticism of the UN’s effectiveness, viewed through her recounting of the Bosnian War (1992-1995).

  • “Compounding matters for the Muslims and for those Serbs and Croats who remained loyal to the idea of a multiethnic Bosnia, the United Nations had imposed an arms embargo in 1991 banning arms deliveries to the region. This froze in place a gross imbalance in Muslim and Serb military capacity. When the Serbs began a vicious offensive aimed at creating an ethnically homogenous state, the Muslims were largely defenseless.” —pg. 249
  • “Despite unprecedented public outcry about foreign brutality, for the next three and a half years the United States, Europe, and the United Nations stood by while some 200,000 Bosnians were killed, more than 2 million were displaced, and the territory of a multiethnic European republic was sliced into three ethnically pure statelets.” —pg. 251
  • “Clinton referred to the United Nations as if it might someday become an institution with a mind, a body, and a bank account of its own. But the UN was dependent on the United States for one-quarter of its budget, on the Security Council for authorization and financing of its missions, and on member states for peacekeepers.” —pg. 274-5
  • “Foreigners who remained in the city [Srebrenica] had once been welcomed as messengers, but now they were reminders of an outside world that had watched Bosnia perish. Doors were slammed in the faces of reporters; the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was mocked as the UN Self-Protection Force. With so many broken promises and broken lives, nothing could surprise the Bosnians.” –On the Bosnian war in the summer of 1995, p. 396.
  • “All the arguments that the Clinton team had been making to defend the embargo had proven hollow with the Serb conquest and UN humiliation…Passivity in the face of Bosnian Serb aggression was no longer a viable policy option…[Clinton] recognized that he was finally in danger of paying a political price for nonintervention.” –On Ratko Mladic’s genocide of Bosnian Muslims in 1995 in what was supposed to be a U.N. safe haven, Srebrencia. p. 425-426, 436-437
  •  “UN peacekeepers were withdrawn from Serb territory in late August [1995], where they were achieving almost nothing besides serving as potential hostages.” —p. 439
  • “Backed by a newly credible threat of military force, the United States was easily able to convince the Serbs to stop shelling civilians. In November 1995, the Clinton administration brokered a peace accord in Dayton, Ohio…For the first time, Clinton saw the costs of noninvolvement as greater than the risks of involvement.” –pg. 440-441
  • “It was hard to see how it was in the U.S. interest to make a state’s treatment of its own citizens the legitimate object of international scrutiny. Genocide prevention was a low priority in the United States, and international law offered few rewards to the most powerful nation on earth.” –On why the Senate didn’t ratify the UN Genocide Convention treaty in 1950. It would be four decades before the U.S. would ratify the treaty. pg. 69

In her Rose Garden speech, Power recognized that her experience in Bosnia affected her view of the United Nations. “I have seen U.N. aid workers enduring shellfire to deliver food to the people of Sudan. Yet I’ve also see U.N. peacekeepers fail to protect the people of Bosnia,” she said. “The question of what the United Nations can accomplish for the world and for the United States remains a pressing one.”

With reporting by Miles Graham