Remarks on “Twenty-first Century Realism” at the Awarding of the 2016 Henry A. Kissinger Prize at the American Academy in Berlin

Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
Berlin, Germany
June 8, 2016


Thank you all so much for being here. Thank you, Gahl and Gerhard, for your tremendous leadership of the Academy and for your moving words, both of you. And thank you, Dr. Heusgen, for your over-the-top, extremely generous remarks, and for all you have done personally to deepen the vital partnership between our two nations. Thank you, Henry, for all of the strategic counsel that you have given me since I moved to New York. But beyond that, the simple warmth – the unusual warmth – with which you have greeted me and guided me along my path.

In the introduction to his book Diplomacy, Dr. Kissinger wrote about the difference between the intellectuals who analyze international relations and the statesmen who build them. The analyst, he wrote, “can choose which problem he wishes to study, whereas the statesman’s problems are imposed on him. The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclusion; the overwhelming challenge to the statesman is the pressure of time. The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong, he can write another treatise. The statesman is permitted only one guess; his mistakes are irretrievable. The analyst has available to him all the facts; he will be judged on his intellectual power. The statesman must act on assessments that cannot be proved at the time that he is making them; he will be judged by history on the basis of how wisely he managed the inevitable change and, above all, by how well he preserves the peace.” That was Dr. Kissinger in Diplomacy.

After spending some 15 years as an analyst “running no risk,” I have since had the privilege of serving for nearly eight years as a member of the Obama Administration, where we are on the receiving end of a good deal of judgment by analysts and politicians alike. Of course, analysis and decision-making need not be mutually exclusive. It is imperative that the makers of foreign policy not wait until they have left the arena to step back from time to time to reflect on their decisions and the processes by which they arrived at them. As those of you who have served in such positions know, this is no easy task. Escaping the tyranny of the inbox can feel at times like trying to defy gravity. Our governments, though, must do better at creating the space where this kind of reflection can occur in real time. My beloved friend and mentor Richard Holbrooke conceived of the American Academy partly with this purpose in mind – which is one of the many reasons that I am so honored to be here with you, and to be with his co-conspirator Kati Marton this evening. I’m also profoundly humbled to join such a remarkable group of past recipients, as well as so many dear friends.

Now, if you had told me some 15 years ago – when my first book, A Problem From Hell, came out – that I would one day be sitting behind a placard at the United Nations that says the “United States,” I would not have believed you – any more than I suspect Dr. Kissinger would have believed that an award bearing his name would one day be presented to a person who had dedicated the early part of her career to documenting the U.S. government’s failure to stop genocide in the 20th century. Dr. Kissinger and I have our share of differences about American foreign policy past and present – that is not a secret. But while our appearance here together doesn’t gloss over any differences, it does speak to two striking phenomena.

One is that the rise of extremist and isolationist voices in the United States has accentuated the critical importance of the fundamental internationalist assumptions that have undergirded U.S. foreign policy across party lines since the Second World War. This includes the belief that we cannot isolate ourselves from the world’s problems, and that attempting to do so will make our citizens less – and not more – safe; it includes the premise that our security continues to depend on investing in the transatlantic alliance of NATO, which has long bound our fates together by treating an attack on any one of our nations as an attack on us all; it includes also the view that we are better off in a world where nations are encouraged to give up, rather than build up, nuclear arsenals. These are foundational premises that – even a few years ago – one could not imagine being called into question. Now, though, those of us who hold them dear must unite in their defense.

The other striking phenomenon is the one to which I would like to dedicate my remarks tonight, and that is a convergence of worldviews that once seemed irreconcilable. While pundits do still insist on foisting labels on foreign policy decision-makers and thinkers – “realists,” “idealists,” “liberal internationalists,” and the like – these boxes have proven quite anachronistic, they obscure the inherent complexity of most contemporary policy decisions, rather than illuminating a way to navigate the inevitable trade-offs that come before us.

I would like here to put forward a simple thesis that once may have been controversial in a gathering like this one. And that thesis is the following: it is now objectively the case that our national interests are increasingly affected not just by what happens between states – but also what happens to people in states. Even if we all agree, with Machiavelli and Dr. Kissinger [laughter], that states intrinsically seek to maximize their self-interest, it is precisely that self-interest which requires us to get better at improving human security in the service of national security.

The way governments treat their own citizens matters; it matters because it can have a direct impact on international peace and security – and on our respective national security interests. Consider Russia, where the mothers of soldiers killed fighting in eastern Ukraine have demanded information about their sons’ deaths and access to social services, only to find themselves intimidated, harassed, and in some instances even prosecuted for treason. Why? Because their sons’ deaths are the clearest, most incontrovertible evidence of the Russian military’s ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine. As a result of this and similar attacks by the Russian government on independent journalists, human rights defenders, and transparency activists, the Russian people are denied knowledge of – and a say in – a conflict that their government is fueling; a conflict that many Russians might well oppose, were they to know its true scale and costs.

It’s not just the Russian people who lose out when their government stifles an informed debate about its military actions – it’s the world. When a global power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council flagrantly tries to expand its territory by lopping off part of a neighboring county, it weakens a core international norm that, when respected, makes all of our nations more secure. The Russian people could demand an end to these acts of aggression; but their government’s censorship and repression of voices like those of the soldiers’ mothers have prevented even the beginnings of a serious debate from taking place. In effect, the elimination of critical voices inside Russia helps enable acts that are profoundly destabilizing outside Russia.

In countries like Venezuela and China, we see the chilling effects of government crackdowns not only on those who stand up for human rights, but also on those who challenge official narratives, including in the economic sphere. When business leaders, journalists, and economists are criticized or attacked for sharing objective information about the economy; when blog posts and news stories are censored for raising legitimate questions about inflated government production figures, dubious currency values, or corrupt officials; when fear prevents people from sharing accurate data about markets, or from recommending reforms that would make them more efficient – the resulting dearth of credible information and the dearth of innovative ideas doesn’t just undermine the economy of any one country; it threatens the stability of an ever-more interconnected, regional, and even global, market.

In light of this, we must make a deliberate, sustained effort to understand how our policies impact – and are seen by – people who live inside other states. When, as a result of our policies, people in other countries see our governments as adversaries rather than allies, and as enablers of repression rather than as champions of their rights – those people can take actions that significantly undermine our security. We’ve seen it.

Take the current wave of instability roiling the Middle East. Now, some argue that the best way to combat violent extremism is by redoubling our support for the governments in the region, in service of confronting terrorism. Those who urge this approach often argue, very reasonably, that these governments can be critical sources of intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, and that they possess – or ought to possess – a monopoly on the use of violence. However, advocates of this approach also tend to argue – less reasonably – that if only we had done more to keep the old guard in power as the Arab Spring swept across the region – “order” could have been preserved, and much of the current turmoil could have been averted. Given the way that terrorists have exploited the conflicts that have grown out of the Arab Spring to expand their reach, to recruit new members, and to plan and execute attacks – it is not at all surprising to hear people express nostalgia for the relative stability of the pre-Arab Spring Middle East that we had all grown so used to. This argument though often seems to presume that the United States had it within our control to put the Arab Spring genie back in the bottle, either by somehow convincing the millions of people in the streets to accept the abusive governments that they had risked their lives trying to change; or by backing those governments as they brought to bear the tremendous force necessary to dislodge those masses from the streets. I don’t believe that violence could have succeeded in beating back the popular tide that arose once people in that region had lost their fear. Rather, I think that once leaders have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of their people, the question is not whether they will fall, but when, and – critically – who will fill the vacuum of power when they do.

We also have to acknowledge that it was repressive, corrupt rule that motivated much of the violence and unrest we see in today’s Middle East. After decades of stifling the emergence of independent institutions in their societies and preventing political evolution, the Mubaraks, Qaddafis, and Ben Alis of the region set the stage for the much more disruptive revolution that is harming our interests today. Destabilizing as such revolutions are, there is nothing “realistic” about believing that such rulers can repress their way to governing indefinitely, or that helping them maintain their grip on power will ultimately lead to greater stability for Western democracies. In Iraq, it was the deeply sectarian, corrupt, and abusive rule of Prime Minister Maliki that drove so many Sunnis to support the ascent of ISIL as the terrorist group methodically expanded its foothold. In Syria, as we all know, no single factor has been a bigger boon for the recruitment of violent extremists than the barrel-bombing, gassing, and forced starvation by the Assad regime. In Egypt, one of the greatest incubators for radicalizing individuals has been the country’s appalling prisons, where thousands of peaceful protesters, political opponents, independent journalists, and countless others are now unjustly imprisoned.

We have also seen that when governments commit abuses in the name of fighting terrorism, they alienate the very communities whose trust and cooperation is crucial to effectively combating extremist groups. When citizens see soldiers and police targeting innocent civilians in the name of providing security, and when they come to fear government security forces as much in some cases as they fear violent extremists – those citizens will have little incentive to share the information that is critical to rooting out the terrorists.

So, if we accept that our interests are increasingly bound not only to those of other governments, but to the people whom they are supposed to serve, how should our foreign policymaking adapt to this shift?

For one, we need to broaden the spectrum of who we engage with our diplomacy. State-to-state relations matter hugely, but our intelligence and knowledge base of the people who live in those states must get much, much deeper. Diplomats need to spend more time out of the office, where they can meet people affected by the policies they debate, see their impact up close, and develop the expertise and the instinct needed to help anticipate how future decisions will be experienced and interpreted by different communities. Getting up close to real people also helps puncture the inevitable abstraction that can prevent us from seeing the human consequences of our actions. This should include building relationships not only with well-known civil society organizations, but also with groups like teachers associations, workers unions, and leaders in the business community; and not only with the vocal majorities, but with the harder to find and hear minorities. This kind of engagement demands a more robust investment in our diplomatic efforts at a time when many governments – including my own – are facing big pressure to scale back the resources we dedicate to investments overseas, and to cloister diplomats in fortress-like embassies in the parts of the world where such connections are actually needed most. So leaders must make the case to the public not only for why we cannot isolate ourselves from these problems, but also why we must widen the scope of our diplomatic engagement as a national security imperative.

If one way to respond to this shift is through this thicker engagement in – and knowledge of – the world beyond our own borders, another is through investing more deeply in the partnerships and capacities needed to confront contemporary threats that, by their very nature, require a global response. The need for alliances is of course nothing new. As Dr. Kissinger’s masterwork Diplomacy makes clear, for as long as the state has existed, diplomats have recognized the need to build partnerships beyond borders to achieve their goals and protect their interests. But what is distinct about many of the problems we face today is that a coalition or alliance of powerful countries cannot solve most of those problems. For climate change to be stopped – and for its myriad economic, security, and environmental consequences to be averted – it’s not enough just for the United States and Europe to bring down our emissions. To prevent terrorists from attacking our citizens, we cannot simply keep them from gaining a foothold in the countries that are our partners. And to stop an outbreak of a deadly virus from turning into a global pandemic, we must do more than build up robust public health systems at home. With each of these threats, a single weak link in the chain – even in an extremely remote part of the world – can put the security of our citizens at risk. That is why the Obama administration has poured so much energy into building broader, deeper coalitions that can shore up all the links in the chain – whether that is by persuading countries like China and India to join the Paris Agreement on climate change this year; or working to help ensure that the forces fighting Boko Haram – ISIL’s new branch – do not themselves abuse local populations, creating in the process more terrorists than they defeat; or training more doctors and nurses in West Africa, so that the next Ebola outbreak in the region does not reach the devastating proportions of the last one.

And yet – and I think this is the spirit of Dr. Kissinger and Dr. Heusgen’s remarks – there are some foreign policy dilemmas for which deepening our diplomatic engagement and marshaling global coalitions will not offer a solution. Such as when the aspirations of the people in a given country cut against our long-standing relationship with its government. Or when we suspect that exerting pressure on a government to move toward a more open, rights-respecting system may actually undermine the limited influence that we have. This is not a hypothetical balancing act; it is one that is playing out right now in our relationships with countries across the world.

And I wish that we had here tonight the magic formula to navigate these conundrums. We do not. It is a challenge we continue to grapple with – with imperfect results. But we must never be ashamed to ask whether we have been too reticent in pressing certain governments to reform and to respond to the demands of their citizens – remember, evolution is far preferable to revolution – or whether we have pushed so hard that we have caused governments to distance themselves from us, forfeiting access that might have more gradually allowed us to achieve our desired end, and maybe squandering our chances of working together to address a shared challenge.

What is certainly not the solution for the contemporary diplomat is to act as if these dilemmas do not exist, or to continue to make foreign policy as though relations between governments were all that mattered. It is indisputable that the motivation of states and the actions of governments matter immensely. But we no longer live in an era in which foreign policymakers can claim to serve their nations’ interests by treating what happens to people in other countries as an afterthought. The foreign policy equation has changed. What happens to people in other countries matters. It matters to the welfare of our own nations and our own citizens. The sooner that we can unite in recognition of this fact, the sooner we can sharpen the foreign policy tools that we can use to advance this increasingly complex agenda – the better off our citizens, our nations, and the indispensable transatlantic partnership, will be.

Thank you.