Time is the scarcest commodity in government. The bandwidth constraint is probably the hardest, more than any kind of disdain or skepticism about its worth.
Samantha Power’s career has seen her reach the apex of three different fields. She began in 1993 as a foreign correspondent covering the wars in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, and would later win a Pulitzer Prize for her 2003 book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. In academe, she founded and led the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School for four years; she recently returned to Harvard as a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard Law. And in government, she was an adviser to President Obama and served U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017.
And so she’s veered from theory to policy, from observation to motivation, which each new page of her CV. Each change has required a rethink about culture, with nudges from her new peers when old habits linger a little too long. (Such as admonitions from Obama “to get to the point” after outlining a given foreign policy problem in all its academic glory.)
Just after Power’s American Academy of Political and Social Science Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize lecture earlier this month, Social Science Space flagged her down to get some advice on navigating these abutting realms.
As someone who has been both in academe and in a policy position — and also the Fourth Estate — how do we get academic research into government, not just for abstract policy but in daily action?
I think it really depends on the individuals who go into government and how much they value research and empiricism and data. Some fields lend themselves to it more easily than others. I was really struck, being in the field of national security on the inside for the first time, how much social science and data and empirical work the intelligence community brings to bear on their long-term and medium-term assessments.
But time is the scarcest commodity in government. The bandwidth constraint is probably the hardest [constraint on considering research], more than any kind of disdain or skepticism about its worth. It’s just more how to, in a world subject to what I call the tyranny of the inbox, make time for more substantive work.
The other thing I’d say is just having people rotate in and out on some of these fellowships. I had a Council on Foreign Relations fellowship that enabled me to work in Senator Obama’s office. I’ve seen people use that kind of fellowship to work in the executive branch. When an academic does that, it’s just going to change the nature of their academic work. And no one has to [spend time to] read their work — they’re in the room! And so I think universities and university administrations should incentivize those kinds of deployments. Often there’s a penalty if you’re tenure track. It’s complicated: the younger you are, the more you’re trying to get tenure. And then once you have tenure, you have a family sometimes. So getting your own schedule to align with that set of opportunities is a very real challenge. But I think it’s worth its weight in gold in both directions.
Let’s flip my question – how does someone get their government experience into academia at that point?
I wish there were more well-trodden pads. But certainly when government officials make the time, which comes back to time again, to go and participate in Georgetown classes, or George Washington University classes, or James Madison classes – when they are integrated in their communities — I think that it’s incredibly important to make time to sit down with academics who are working in your area. Of course, sometimes I felt the requests to speak would never end. Still, it is important to make time to offer your version of oral history, even before you’re in a position to — if you’re going to leave government eventually — to do your own writing.
And there are rotations, where you can rotate out for a year or six months. Still, other than these fellowships, the ability to just change careers and go from being a political scientist to being a diplomat, those opportunities haven’t existed to the extent that would be ideal.
My own view is that we’re going to be in a position of effectively re-building the State Department from scratch [after the Trump administration]. And when we do so it will be in a manner that renders it more accessible for outsiders, not just from academia, but also from business and other sectors.
There are also, and I don’t think academics use them as much as they should, departmental historians who are gathering practitioner experiences, reflections, facts. Their work is sitting there, and often scholars don’t know about it and don’t take advantage of it.
And speaking of changing careers, you were in academia, then you were in government, and now you’re back. So what could present Samantha tell past Samantha?
I just wrote a whole book called The Education of an Idealist, which is exactly that! I have a thousand answers that are all in the book!
My government self is very continuous with my activist self and my academic self. In government, you don’t have the time to ‘admire the problem.’ There’s very little time when you’re in a debate and trying to help shape a policy; everything in government happens with different vectors clashing, and then the decider, whether it’s the president or someone else, making sense of all the different perspectives heard. You have to very quickly formulate your views on prescription, on what is sought, anticipating the negative consequences to the thing that you are recommending, and addressing those negative consequences preemptively.
In academia, you spend a lot of time almost in a wind-up before you get to [a proposed action]. If you look at books, the conclusion is the ‘what you do about it,’ and, and the wind-up before that is the point.
I’d written a lot of op-eds, where I tried to distill my academic ideas into prescriptions, so that transition wasn’t so hard. But other academics, and even senators, really struggle with that. … That doesn’t mean that the wind-up is unimportant, you just have to get that in your head, and then pivot from there to something actionable.
And yet many academics are often uncomfortable doing anything that’s too applied, or to advocate or support something they see as advocacy related.
I guess I’m not that clear, in this day and age, of the difference between a recommendation and a form of advocacy. I’m not a traditional academic, I’m a professor of practice. So I’m not the best at being able to generalize about what academics do or don’t do, but I certainly think to the degree that policymakers and practitioners are going to integrate academic work, what they’re looking for is not only the diagnosis, but also some suggestions about how policy can be tailored. That’s why academics who have spent even a short time in government, I think, are just generally more effective at tailoring their messages around a specific agency or specific moment in political time.
You already have a public intellectual in the family and you’ve already won a Pulitzer. What is it like to have written Idealist?
I wrote a book that’s very different than any academic or advocacy work I’ve done in the past. It’s a very, very personal, very vulnerable, very revelatory account of my childhood in a pub in Dublin, my life as a war correspondent, and some of my gullibilities and failings when I was in government grappling with the question of whether to resign [over U.S. policy toward Syria]. It’s sort of humor and romance, and then these very weighty decisions.
The reason I did it that way, was with an idea of broadening the conversation. My idea was that many more people will read a personal story with humor, and adventure, and that’s all true. But then in so doing, they’ll get the case for why U.S. leadership in the world matters more than ever.
So what’s next?
I’m on this beat of recognizing that on the left and the right, there’s a lot of skepticism about U.S. foreign policy, and trying to help define what [a foreign policy] that could win a constituency would look like. That grows out of the book, but while the book itself is not a manifesto, it gives rise to a lot of questions about what that can look like.
So I’m on the road for the next few months. And then I’m much more focused on the teaching dimension of my life than I was before I went into government. One experience I had while in government was how many of my students I would encounter, sometimes on the other side of a debate, but more often just in the rank and file of the State Department, the civil service or Foreign Service. I came to value the cascading effect you can have – it’s a challenge as a teacher, but it’s an amazing opportunity. I have three courses that I’m doing when I go back that are pretty ambitious. All are rooted in activating people, giving them the tools to go out in the world, using behavioral science, legal analysis and other methods to look back at when change — positive or negative — happened, and why? So many students are activated, but they don’t feel they have the tools to make any changes themselves. So I’m very focused on using my time at Harvard to do that.