You might expect the United States’ chief diplomat to come across as a consummate insider — a little bit dull, a lot establishment. Not Samantha Power. Before turning to public service, Power, 43, made her career calling out U.S. foreign policy for moral blindness, arrogance and hypocrisy. As the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (attending her first opening of the General Assembly this week), Power still relies on the fiery language of human rights. This month, for instance, she invoked a Syrian father’s grief over his children, “still dressed in the pink shorts and leggings of little girls .” Words like “barbaric” and “heartbreaking” are part of her arsenal.
It’s more fire than we’re used to seeing from our diplomatic corps, and it can singe. While advising then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, Power called Hillary Clinton a “monster ” (Power had to resign after that) and dissed U.N. head Ban Ki-moon as “extremely disappointing” and “more of a secretary than a general” in Darfur. Of course, now that she and the secretary-general work in the same building, Power has likely toned it down.
Outsiders have the potential to remake the establishment in their own image, to reform it gradually, or to, well, sell out.
Funny things happen when outsiders become insiders, as Power and others (see below) show. They have the potential to remake the establishment in their own image, to reform it gradually, or to, well, sell out. The salient question is: Will they change the system, or will the system change them?
Some accused Power of selling out as a human rights defender after she called for military strikes in Syria, where, the administration says, a chemical-weapons attack killed more than 1,400 people on August 21. Others complained that she had discarded her previously professed multilateralism: Without Security Council support, she admitted, intervention in Syria would not be technically legal.
Those critics misunderstood Power. Her views on intervention haven’t changed much since her wunderkind days writing about genocide . (By 32, she had won the Pulitzer Prize and founded a human rights center at Harvard .) Power has long been a humanitarian hawk , urging military intervention to prevent mass atrocity, and she’s been noncommittal about the need for multilateral consensus for a while. Rather, it’s the era’s thinking on human rights and humanitarian intervention that has changed, with Power herself at the vanguard of the shift. If anything, she sometimes seems to be bending the will of the commander in chief, not bending to it.
But what will happen to Power’s more idealistic convictions? A decade ago, she called for “a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored or permitted by the United States,” such as CIA-assisted coups and support for right-wing paramilitaries. She urged more accountability overall, including expanding the Freedom of Information Act and U.S. support of the International Criminal Court. Now that Power has a broader, more influential platform — and more responsibility— the world will be watching to see how she uses it.
Outsiders who become insiders often must sand down their rougher edges.
Outsiders who become insiders often must sand down their rougher edges. And some, intent on reforming the system, are confronted with mind-numbing bureaucracy and competing priorities and yield to compromise, get co-opted or just change their minds. In any case, the world looks different from a perch of power, as the following former outsiders might tell you.
Jim Yong Kim
Now: President, World Bank
Then: Healing the poor
What you should know: The Iowa native helped found Partners in Health, a radical community health-care organization that got results (PIH was a pioneer in the fight against multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis in poor areas). The organization succeeded by being nimble, soulful and putting patient care above all else. Now, Kim is bringing some of the same ethos to the Bank, although it will be a challenge. The World Bank is massive (it doled out some $53 billion last year in financial aid to poor countries), risk averse and, at times, operates in a bubble of comfort. Kim is just a year into his five-year term.
Now: President, Uruguay
Then: Urban guerrilla
What you should know: Mujica spent his youth as a member of a Marxist urban guerrilla group, the Tupamaros , that engaged in robberies and political kidnappings. He landed behind bars and logged 14 years in prison, more than 10 of them in solitary confinement . Freed under an amnesty in 1985, Mujica won his first election in 1994, and today the guerilla’s long gone but the socialist remains. President Mujica, known as Pepe, presides over a coalition of left-leaning groups and is ostentatiously austere in his personal life. His net worth amounted to $1,800 when he took office in 2010, and he donates about 90 percent of his salary to the poor. Pepe has overseen unprecedented economic growth in Uruguay. Next up for the country? Decriminalizing the marijuana industry, a move Pepe has wholeheartedly supported as necessary, even though he was quoted this summer as saying, “I declare that love is the only healthy addiction on the face of the Earth.”
Now: Dictator, Zimbabwe
Then: Liberation fighter and prisoner of conscience
What you should know: For the first part of his life, Robert Mugabe was regarded as a hero for fighting against minority rule by whites. Then he came to power in 1980, and he hasn’t left — ballots be damned. He told those who disputed his August 2013 landslide to “go hang” and dismissed his rivals as “Western-sponsored stooges .” He’s said only God could remove him from office, and these days, he looks to be right: Chances are he will succumb to prostate cancer before democracy comes to Zimbabwe. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that Mugabe resembled the caricature of an African dictator, and with decades of killngs, political repression, economic mismanagement and sheer cronyism under his belt, one can see why.
Why you should care
The world might look different from a powerful perch.