The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
Samantha Power, Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; William D. Zabel ’61 Professor of Practice in Human Rights, Harvard Law School
BY TURNS A DEEPLY PERSONAL HISTORY, a diplomatic page-turner, and a moral manifesto, Samantha Power’s new book, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, is a complex and engaging work by one of the world’s most influential voices at the intersection of human rights and geopolitics.
Starting in her native Ireland, Power recounts spending childhood days at the pub with her gregarious but alcoholic father and then, after her parents’ separation, emigrating at the age of nine with her mother and younger brother to the United States. She writes of her student years at Yale, her interest in pursuing a career as a sports journalist, and the moment she was captivated by the lone protester standing in front of a tank during China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
The haunting images from China propelled her to study foreign affairs, and a few years later, she ended up in the war-torn Balkans as a 23-year-old freelance journalist covering the siege of Sarajevo and Bosnian Serb atrocities. After earning a Harvard Law degree and writing A Problem from Hell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about American responses to twentieth-century genocides, she landed a job with then-Senator Barack Obama. She became Obama’s chief human rights and UN adviser after he was elected president and in 2013 was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the youngest diplomat to assume that role.
Power gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at U.S. and global efforts to respond to crises in South Sudan, Burma, Syria, and beyond, and how she maintained a close relationship with the Russian ambassador even as the two waged a pitched battle in the UN Security Council. She also shows the challenges of raising two young children while managing a 24/7 national security job.
In the end, Power remains upbeat about our ability to make a difference in our communities and internationally. “People who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world,” she writes, “but they can change many individual worlds.”
Legitimacy: The Right to Rule in a Wanton World
Arthur Applbaum, Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values
ARTHUR APPLBAUM’s WORK focuses on political legitimacy, civil and official disobedience, and role morality. His latest book, Legitimacy: The Right to Rule in a Wanton World, presents one of the first full-fledged philosophical accounts of what makes governments legitimate during an unsettled time for liberal democracy—a time marked by eruptions of authoritarianism and arbitrary rule.
Applbaum argues that adherence to procedure is not enough to ensure a legitimate government. “Following the best method for producing legitimate government doesn’t constitute legitimate government any more than following the best recipe for crème brûlée constitutes crème brûlée,” he writes. Even a properly chosen government does not rule legitimately if it fails to protect basic rights, to treat its citizens as political equals, or to act coherently.
Instead, Applbaum reasons, a legitimate government must be made up of free citizens and must uphold three principles: liberty, equality, and agency. He explains, “The liberty, equality, and agency principles control three distinct aspects of governance: The liberty principle controls what decisions should be made. The equality principle controls who has the normative power to make these decisions. The agency principle controls how decisions are made.” He singles out disregard of the third principle—which may result in a ruler’s acting in incoherent and wanton ways—as the most damaging in today’s world. “The greatest danger to the legitimacy of contemporary democracies,” Applbaum writes, “is the threat of wantonism. … Rulers that cannot govern themselves cannot legitimately govern others.”
How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That’s Crippling Our Democracy
Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press
THE KNOW NOTHING MOVEMENT broke like a wave over America in the 1850s. A large number of American Protestants, seeing a papist conspiracy behind the arrival of millions of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany, organized in a not-so-secret society that at its high-water mark included members who held mayoral and statewide offices and even a viable presidential candidate. But, Thomas Patterson writes, “their governing policies were as zany as their theories,” among them the belief that the Irish were a racially separate and inferior group, and soon the movement’s popularity ebbed.
One tension at the core of democracy has always been that power flows from all citizens, regardless of their level of education or grip on the truth. But whereas ignorance and misinformation are ever with us, democracy today faces an insidious threat from the sheer virulence of misinformation and from its resistance to correction.
“Outrageous ideas abound today but, unlike those of the Know Nothings, they are not likely to disappear in short order,” Patterson writes. “The conditions necessary for misinformation to thrive are firmly in place, held there by three of America’s sturdiest anchors—the lust for money, the lure of celebrity, and the drive for power.”
The sources of this situation have been diagnosed before: universal access to mass communication, the decline of journalism, the indulgence of views untethered from fact. Patterson, whose book grew out of his Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture at the University of Oklahoma, delves into the characters who have helped make it so—those whom he dubs the disruptors, the performers, and the marketers. But he also suggests remedies that could help the increasingly endangered political moderate, responsible journalist, and well-informed citizen thrive again. Finally, he points to the vital role of the leader: “The quality of our leadership is ultimately an index of the quality of our democracy.”
Valuing U.S. National Parks and Programs: America’s Best Investment
Linda Bilmes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy; coeditor, John Loomis, Colorado State University
The NATIONAL PARK SERVICE (NPS) OVERSEES more than 95 million acres, fielding 22,000 employees and 339,000 volunteers to manage national parks, monuments, historical sites, battlefields, seashores, and more. But although the national parks are heralded as one of our country’s most important and enduring treasures, the agency faces a $12 billion maintenance backlog and a $2.5 billion budget that has remained flat for decades, is funneled from five sources, and includes tough restrictions on how the money is used.
Linda Bilmes first began looking at the NPS’s budgetary woes while researching examples of poor financing systems. Years later, she and her coeditor, John Loomis, offer a new economic analysis, assigning the national parks a value beyond their beauty and ecological importance. Valuing U.S. National Parks and Programs, they claim, provides the first comprehensive economic assessment of “America’s best investment.”
The book offers a framework for calculating the true monetary worth of the parks, accounting for visitor use and contributions, carbon-footprint costs, educational resources, entertainment-industry value, and sustainable future funding. The result is a valuation of about $100 billion in economic benefits to the American public.
The authors also point to specific ways to improve funding for the NPS in the future, including longer appropriation cycles to reduce volatility and allowing the NPS to issue bonds. They hope this new framework will help economists and park professionals around the world quantify the value of their own protected areas.
Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump
Joseph S. Nye Jr., Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, emeritus, and former dean of Harvard Kennedy School
IN HIS NEW BOOK, Joseph S. Nye Jr., the preeminent scholar of international relations who coined the term “soft power,” meticulously weighs the ethics of the foreign policy decisions of every U.S. president from Franklin Delano Roosevelt onward. “Good moral reasoning should be three-dimensional, weighing and balancing the intentions, the means, and the consequences of presidents’ decisions,” he argues. “A moral foreign policy is not a matter of intentions versus consequences but must involve both as well as the means that were used.”
Using these three dimensions, Nye develops a moral scorecard for each president. This multifaceted approach allows for a nuanced judgment of foreign policy decisions. It also reveals some insights into our former heads of state. Nye judges Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush as the best in their balance of effectiveness and morality in foreign policy. The four least successful, in his assessment, are Johnson, Nixon, George W. Bush, and (tentatively, since he is still sitting) Trump.
Although the bulk of the book is dedicated to the past seven decades, Nye also forecasts the circumstances that will affect future U.S. presidents’ decisions. The next heads of state, he argues, will have to contend with a more powerful China and with how technology makes our world increasingly complex. Nye predicts that “the 46th president will face the moral challenge of defining a foreign policy where America provides global public goods in cooperation with others, and uses not only our hard power but also our soft power to attract their cooperation.”
Do morals matter in the U.S. presidency? For Nye, the answer is a resounding “yes.”