On Thursday evening, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power addressed international diplomacy during Donald Trump’s presidency in her second Tanner Lecture on Human Values. Power said that America’s global standing has fallen dramatically under Trump, and described a new model of diplomacy to tackle what she defined as unique 21st century challenges.
Robert Keohane, a professor of political science at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school, offered remarks on diplomacy, climate change and education following Power’s talk.
Power shared her fears about American diplomacy since Trump’s election: specifically, a possible military confrontation with North Korea or a war with Iran.
“More than a year into the Trump administration, I am alarmed about the dismantling of American diplomacy and the massive drop in U.S. standing around the world,” she said.
Power specifically addressed the lecture’s title, “Diplomacy After Darkness.” She said that she was in “a state of shock” after the result of the 2016 presidential election but was consoled by the patriotism, professionalism and sense of service she saw in her colleagues at the State Department.
“The President-elect had pledged to undo much of what our team had achieved,” Power said.
Specifically, Power said that she is troubled by the current number of vacancies in the State Department. She noted that Trump’s administration has not put forward nominees for one-third of America’s open ambassadorships. This, she believes, has conveyed a lack of respect to countries without U.S. ambassadors, including Jordan, South Korea and Egypt.
“The consequences of the hollowing out of the State Department run deep, and they are wide,” Power said.
Power said she believes that America is at a pivotal moment in history and one which future politicians will have to learn from. She also said that the next administration will have to engineer a renewal in American diplomatic policy in order to recover from what she referred to as “Trump’s wrecking ball.” However, she also added that it will be challenging for America to rebuild trust with its allies and reverse withdrawals from international agreements such as the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
“The next President will be digging [America] out of a large hole,” Power said.
She added that America’s “friends and foes” think that the country is divided, so the next administration must address domestic problems and the legitimate grievances of the American people — which she believes led Trump to victory in the first place — to restore confidence in American diplomacy.
“This includes finding a way to speak compellingly to Americans sympathetic to Trump’s resonant claim — [a] surprisingly resonant claim — that the U.S. is getting ripped off by the international order,” Power said.
“[Power] talked about the damage that the Trump administration is doing to the State Department… which was very bleak,” said Gabriela Levikow ’18. “But there is hope moving forward.”
Power said that America will need to adapt its “anachronistic” diplomatic policy to face 21st century challenges.
She criticized Trump’s response to Russia’s use of technology to obstruct American democracy, which she argued has made the nation more vulnerable.
“On Russia, at no one point have our countries been more estranged,” Power stated. “Trump seems incapable of unequivocally acknowledging Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.”
Power also said that “Russian bots” had infiltrated social media platforms to spread division about the gun control debate following the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Regarding America’s diplomatic relationship with China — a country that Power claimed will surpass America as the most powerful economy in the world within the next decade — Power said that future diplomats must avoid two mistakes she believes America has been and continues to be guilty of making.
“[There is] the temptation on one hand to reflexively fight or negate China’s rise and the temptation on the other – because China is so powerful – to whitewash its deeply problematic domestic, regional, global policies,” she said.
Power said that she and the Obama administration gave into the first of these temptations when they unsuccessfully lobbied to prevent China’s establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Beijing-based bank which supports infrastructure development in Asia and the Pacific.
Trump risks being guilty of the second mistake, Power continued, by showering praise on China’s president, Xi Jinping.
Students in the audience said they enjoyed hearing from Power because of her unique perspective on government and policy.
“Especially as someone who is really interested in U.S. foreign policy and potentially going into a career in diplomacy, I think [the talk] was really inspiring,” Levikow said. “[Power] started by talking about the negatives but then spoke about how we can move forward.”
“It was a phenomenal chance to get an insider’s perspective on something that some of us can only hear about in soundbites from the news,” said Samuel Feineh ’19.
Power advocated changing American diplomacy by means of employing more women and ethnic minorities.
However, she admitted her uncertainty about the feasibility of this goal.
“Choosing men and women in roughly equal numbers can still feel like fighting gravity,” Power said. “Our record in diplomacy of recruiting minorities is even worse. Minorities make up less than 15 percent of America’s senior diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers.”
Furthermore, Power drew on her personal experiences during the West African Ebola outbreak, where she found the most support from local leaders in affected regions, in emphasizing the importance of diversifying the stakeholders involved in diplomacy.
“The messengers who had the greatest impact were not heads of state but local priests and imams,” Power said. “It is essential to seek out the raw and unfiltered points of view that do not come through in briefing rooms… and air-conditioned government compounds.”
Power enumerated what she sees as the three qualities indispensable to the field of politics: objectivity regarding policy decisions, responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions and a sense of conviction.
“These are dark days,” Power concluded, referring again to Trump’s presidency and its diplomatic consequences. “Yet I am convinced as ever that despite all the cynicism out there – much of it earned – both our strength and compassion will rest where it always has with individuals who are willing to serve.”
Keohane on climate change, education
Keohane expressed similar fears regarding the current administration. He detailed steps that America needs to take to renew its diplomacy, especially in the wake of climate change.
“We need unprecedented action on climate change,” Keohane said, further suggesting that America make major investments into zero-emissions energy and govern new advances in geo-engineering.
Keohane added that universities are also responsible for reinvigorating diplomacy. He said that universities should accept students who demonstrate an effort to advance a social good, and that changing admissions criteria would help to create a new generation of leaders committed to public service.
Keohane also argued that students should have a strong background in the humanities, especially history.
“It is distressing how much there has been a decline in the study of history at American universities, including Stanford,” Keohane said before quoting philosopher George Santayana. “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Contact Yasmin Samrai at ysamrai ‘at’ stanford.edu.