Samantha Power’s First Week: When Activists are Diplomats, and Diplomats are Activists

If the activities of her first week in office are any indication of how she will approach her new job, Samantha Power has signaled strongly that she will be a US Ambassador the United Nations cut from a different cloth than her predecessors.

Susan Rice spent her first years at the UN repairing the damage to the UN (and American alliances) afflicted by the previous administration. The later part of her tenure was defined by huge disagreements between the west and Russia over Syria. Those disagreements persist, but it is becoming clear that Ambassador Power is looking beyond traditional mechanisms of diplomacy to pursue her priorities at the UN.

On her first day in office — before even her first meeting at the Security Council — Ambassador Power held a Q and A with a group of young refugees who were recently resettled by the International Rescue Committee. Later she hosted a Google Hangout with human rights activists around the world.

On Saturday night, she gave her first public address as US Ambassador to the UN. She chose a summit of  youth activists convened by Invisible Children (the group behind the #StopKony video and movement) as her audience. Her first public remarks as US ambassador are a call to action for the activist community from which she came.

But the new tools that make progress possible can also be used to hold it back. Those who seek to repress their own people and to export hate and fear, are as savvy as this next generation of human rights activists.  Since 2002, twenty countries have introduced new restrictions on the freedom of civil society groups to operate, learning from one another in a global marketplace of ideas that shares the bad as well as the good. That is why we need your positive moral vision more than ever. We need your vision of justice to win over those who fear it. We need your vision of freedom to overwhelm those who rely on repression. We need your vision of equality and tolerance to overcome those who propagate division and terror. And we need you to act so your vision prevails.

You are not just activists. You are leaders. You are diplomats. And we who have the privilege to serve in government can learn a lot from watching you. I take three lessons from you about what matters. [emphasis mine]

First, what matters are results – most everything else is just noise. Invisible Children could have gotten self-satisfied that 2 million people watched its Kony 2012 video and thrust the organization into the limelight. But this new generation understands that the video is not what matters; the number of twitter followers is not what matters. These are just means to an end; indeed Invisible Children the organization is a means to an end. What matters is the real world scoreboard.

And the scoreboard does not measure hits or tweets, any more than it measures the number of times the Security Council meets on an issue. The scoreboard measures whether more LRA soldiers are defecting and whether fewer people are dying. In 2012, the UN says the Ugandan-led, U.S.-supported operations helped reduce the LRA’s killings of civilians by more than 63%, according to the UN. That’s what counts. This focus on results, this clarity of conviction about why we do what we do every day – it’s needed at the UN, and it’s needed as a benchmark for our diplomacy.

Second, what matters to us in government is our partnership with you. We need your voices and energy. We need your ideas and sense of mission. We need your activism and your action. And since the most sustainable and effective policies are those with public support, your activism enables us to do more.

Often when President Obama meets with activists – even those who are his critics – he thanks them for expanding the base of political support for a just foreign policy. After all, without you, it is not at all obvious that there would be such strong bi-partisan support for sending U.S. military advisors to central Africa to help defeat a warlord. It is not obvious that the United States would be the world’s most generous supporter of life-saving medications for people living with HIV/AIDS. And for all of the polarization and disagreements in Washington, people largely agree on the importance of promoting human rights around the world. This shared commitment, reinforced and strengthened by your engagement, gives us the kind of political capital that we as diplomats need. It enables us to push back against those who would have us disengage or look the other way.

Third, what matters are individuals. We need a people-centered foreign policy. We have to escape the bubbles we create and inhabit, and find ways to hear from the individuals whose lives our policies touch. The refugee who fled the violence in Syria as the Security Council fails to respond. The villager in Eastern DRC who depends on the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission for protection in a country suffering from a decades-long conflict. The parents who lost a baby boy or girl to preventable disease.

Samantha Power has been a White House insider since 2009. But as the National Security Council director for multilateral affairs she kept a fairly low public profile. The job of an ambassador is necessarily high profile — and necessarily public facing. It is becoming apparent that she intends to use her platform to support, engage and bolster the activist and the advocacy community.

This is not just payback to her constituency, but the recognition that a more empowered advocacy community would give allies like her greater leverage in coming debates at the UN and inside the US government.  This is very much an activist’s theory of change — it is how outsiders believe they can affect and influence policy decisions. Ambassador Power now has the opportunity to apply that theory from the inside, out. And she is more than just an ally of the community, she is a scion of it.

The US ambassador to the UN and multitudes of activists around the world working in tandem can be a powerful force for change. The key question going forward is around what issues, debates, and decisions will she call upon the activist community to mobilize–and what actions will they urge her to take?