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Festival: The Compelling Samantha Power

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Wow. The Samantha Power presentation on Darfur was just phenomenal. It actually felt much more like a New York Conference event (at least judging from the online videos). It’s rare to see a speaker on a complex subject also speak, often ex tempore, very complexly and yet quite clearly and more than that, with rhetorical resonance.

Her talk had three parts — the situation in Darfur, solutions to the problem, and structural qualities that may hinder or help the efforts of well-intentioned people. I won’t try to reproduce the facts on the ground in Darfur — other sources can do that more accurately. I will attempt to summarize what I got out of the other parts of her presentation. None of this should be taken as quotation; I did take notes, and in some places will be attempting to reproduce her pithy wording. But my notes are imperfect, so just don’t take any of this as her exact words.

I gather that Power is now aligned with Barack Obama in ways that can’t relate to her job as a reporter. She sprinkled in a dozen stray references to the importance of electing Obama president. This is instructive for a few reasons, which I’ll get to. (As it happens, I agree with her on Obama.)

She has apparently been spending a lot of time in Obama’s Senate offices, and she found it illuminating to witness constituent influence on the actual activities of the office. Every day, according to her, someone would present a tally of the calls on a variety of subjects, and it was a given that any subject getting a large number of calls would have to be dealt with quickly. This was not limited to Obama’s office, which is presumably well run. Her point was that, difficult as it may seem to believe, when you call your local congressperson or Senator, it matters. They are listening, and if there are enough calls someone will go off and at least put out a statement. It may not sound like that much, but forcing them to get on the record is far from nothing. If something matters to you, call your elected representatives — they will be forced to take action.


According to Power, this system of direct popular influence is almost unique to the United States (her actual point of contrast was Europe), and it is practically the only reason that the United States, even in its laggardly form, is one of the global leaders in the struggle to help Darfur. Power said that President Bush has mentioned Darfur far more in public than any other western leader, and that is purely a result of pressure bubbling up from citizens who want to see action. In addition, despite abiding GOP hostility toward to the International Criminal Court, there has been so much domestic pressure on Darfur that John Bolton was forced to give his kiss of approval to certain international actions intended to help Darfur.

In addition to nagging elected officials, there are also some interesting techniques that some younger activists are trying. One group is issuing “genocide grades” to congresspersons. (Missing big votes about genocide is a sure way to an F.) And it’s working. Some flunking representatives and senators have explicitly sought to raise their grade. If you have any kind of stock holdings, especially mutual funds, You can also call and ask to have Darfur-related stocks removed. “Divestment” is a big term in this field, and that’s also something you can pressure your elected official about.

In some ways the talk was “really” about the reduced prestige of the United States and the increased prestige of China. China is one of the major reasons that it is difficult to make progress in Darfur. China has major petroleum holdings in Sudan, so it is blocking efforts to stop the violence in Darfur. Basically this is just a fact of life we have to get used to (China is important), but we should also not forget that China can be shamed into action because it is very careful not to harm its prospects in the long term. It is possible to get even China to do things it doesn’t want.

It’s depressing to contemplate our reduced prestige, the primary effect of which is a palpable moral vacuum in the international arena. It’s sobering to realize how much damage the war in Iraq has done on this score, it is now simply a chip that countries with their own motives (let’s say, France, which has its own energy deals it is pursuing) can use any time they want to ignore U.S. exhortations on such subjects. The vacuum also extends to the UN Security Council, where a more influential China and a chastened United States mean continuing disarray in many parts of the world.

Back to Obama. All of this last stuff is the reason that Obama as president might be able to do so much good. Symbolically, he would send the right message to the rest of the world that we are ready to put the Bush presidency behind us, and Obama would doubtless take many concrete actions consistent with that. However, as Power pointed out, our problems are not limited to Bush; they extend to the domestic forces that put Bush in office. Similarly, while it is possible to imagine the United States taking a wide array of actions necessary to coexist in the world, it is difficult to imagine that happening without retwriting our national DNA. It will be interesting to see what kinds of actions have to happen on the international scene (I refer to proofs of our decreased prestige) in order for us to put our own chauvinism behind us and regain the good will of our erstwhile international allies. Power quoted someone (didn’t catch the name) to the effect that “the United States has to learn to become a team player even when it’s not the team captain.” Hear hear.


—Martin Schneider

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