Samantha Power: 'There is no option B after multilateralism'

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power addresses media following a U.N. security council vote, aimed at ensuring that U.N. officials can monitor evacuations from besieged parts of the Syrian city of Aleppo, at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York, on December 19, 2016. Photo by: REUTERS / Andrew Kelly

YEREVAN, Armenia — Former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power has spoken out about a backsliding on multilateralism, saying it is “mindless and self-defeating” to refuse to work with other nations when confronted with global problems.

Responding to a question from Devex during the Aurora Dialogues summit in Yerevan, Armenia, last weekend, she said “it's very hard to think of a single problem that one can deal with without a multilateral solution in 2018,” including climate change, peace and security, and humanitarian crises.

She continued, “it is just so mindless and self-defeating and ideological to take an approach that says 'no, I don't want your help; no, I don't want you to share any of this burden; I want to take on the problem myself' — or worse and more blindly — 'I'm not going to deal with the problem at all,' as if there is some door number two that doesn't entail working with other countries. There's no door number two in the 21st century,” said Power, who was United States ambassador to the United Nations under former President Barack Obama. She also served on the National Security Council as special assistant to the president and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights.

“It is just so mindless and self-defeating and ideological to take an approach that says 'no, I don't want your help …’”

—  Samantha Power, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School

Since taking office in January 2017, Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, has pulled out of a number of multilateral agreements, including the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. He has also cut funding from several U.N. agencies and proposed cuts to others, including the U.N. Population Fund, which lost its second-largest donor as part of U.S. funding cuts for sexual and reproductive health and rights; the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, from which the U.S. withdrew in October; and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees which the U.S. withheld funding from over demands for reform. After much speculation, however, the administration backed the World Bank’s recent capital increase.

Power said “it goes without saying” that multilateral solutions are required to tackle issues such as climate change, and to garner “the kind of economic leverage we needed to bring Iran to the table.” She added that even issues that may look domestic are often transnational in some sense.

Power, who is now a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, was speaking to journalists on the sidelines of the humanitarian Aurora Prize, which is awarded in memory of the Armenian genocide and was won this year by Rohingya activist Kyaw Hla Aung.

Rohingya activist wins $1 million humanitarian prize

Kyaw Hla Aung, who says he is in fear of his safety in Myanmar, has nominated three charities to share the Aurora prize money.

The diplomat and academic is on the selection committee for the $1 million prize, which will now be shared between three charities working on the Rohingya crisis: Médecins Sans Frontières UK; Mercy Malaysia; and the International Catholic Migration Commission.

She told journalists that the crisis was one of a number of conflicts, including in South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “where there need to be big diplomatic initiatives.”

Responding to a question from a Press Association reporter, she said about the Rohingya crisis: “An entire people has been systematically murdered, raped, and deported from their country, and there’s no contact group that’s been formed, there’s been no high-level ministerial summit that I’m aware of. There’s been humanitarian assistance ... and the secretary-general [of the U.N.] has used his voice, but if you want to actually change the calculus of a government that has decided to expel and destroy a group, which it looks like the Myanmar government and military have decided to do, you have to change the incentives for them.”

She said that would require “dealing with their sources of revenue,” alongside “concerted and sustained diplomatic pressure, not just from the U.N. secretary-general or the high commissioner for human rights, but from a coalition of diverse countries,” including China. The solution, she said, “is diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy, and then changing the calculus of a government that — like many governments around the world — feels a great sense of impunity.”

Later, on stage, she remarked that conflicts are lasting longer now than in preceding decades, and highlighted our current displacement crisis — the largest since World War II. “The root causes of displacement are not being addressed, so I think we need a diplomatic surge of the kind that is frankly missing,” she said.

Editor’s Note: The reporter traveled to Armenia with the support of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

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About the author

  • Jessica abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Devex's Associate Editor for Europe. Based in London, she was previously an editor at Prospect magazine and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, Bloomberg News, and Germany's taz.die tageszeitung with a focus on global women's rights and social affairs. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals.