Domestic divisions undermine foreign policy, former U.N. representative says

American foreign policy can be a powerful force for good in the world, but its potential is undercut by growing partisanship at home, former United Nations ambassador Samantha Power said Thursday at Indiana University.

"One of the greatest threats to our national security comes from our domestic division," she said. "This is something that should speak to all of us. Each of us has a role to play in reclaiming our foreign policy."

Power was the keynote speaker for the America's Role in the World conference, sponsored by the IU School of Global and International Studies. A professor of law and public policy at Harvard, she served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017.

Samantha Power at podiumView print quality image
Samantha Power speaks at the America's Role in the World conference. Ann Schertz

She said the international community can work together to accomplish common goals, but only if countries step forward to lead. Since World War II, she said, the United States has played that role. But with the U.S. stepping back, China is emerging as an influential power.

"When the U.S. doesn't lead, bad things are likely to happen," she said, speaking to a packed house at the School of Global and International Studies Auditorium and an overflow crowd watching from another room via video.

As an example of positive leadership, she pointed to President Barack Obama's response to the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa in late 2014. She recalled a White House meeting at which the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a slide indicating the virus could infect 1.4 million people.

"This was one of the most terrifying meetings I've been a part of," she said, "and that includes some very terrifying meetings about ISIS and other threats."

Obama sent 3,000 troops and health workers to Africa to help stop the spread of the disease, and the U.S. put together a coalition of dozens of nations, including adversaries like China and Cuba, to help. The epidemic was stopped after an estimated 11,000 to 25,000 deaths.

But foreign policy requires diplomacy, she said, and career diplomats and U.S. Foreign Service officers have been hobbled by the Trump administration. Key State Department positions and ambassador posts are unfilled, hiring is down, and longtime employees are leaving government service in frustration.

"That's something we're going to have to address, or the consequences will be felt for decades to come," she said.

Domestic politics and partisanship make it hard to build support for diplomacy, Power said. A recent survey found that 83 percent of Democrats but only 33 percent of Republicans agree with what she called the "simple truism" that good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace.

She lamented that self-identified Democrats and Republicans can't get along, don't listen to opposing views and don't seem to want anything to do with each other.

"Our adversaries like nothing more than to see us tearing each other apart," she said. "We saw it again after the Parkland shootings -- Russian bots jumping into action, pushing not just pro-NRA stories but anti-NRA stories."

Power said there is no big, simple solution to such divisions. Instead, she encouraged the audience to take modest steps like volunteering, working on community service projects and making their voices heard in local and state elections.