Interview: Samantha Power

NS interview with the self-proclaimed "humanitarian hawk" who - until her resignation for calling Hi

Not that long ago Samantha Power was trudging through the winter wastes of New Hampshire with Bill Clinton's former national security adviser, Anthony Lake, canvassing door- to-door and phoning potential supporters in what she calls a "very mom-and-poppy operation". "Almost by definition there was a sort of expectation that he was going to lose," she says of Barack Obama, whom this Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professor advises on foreign policy. "Going into Iowa he was down 25 points. So anybody who joined his team was, for the most part, prepared to lose for something, or someone, they believed in."

A group of idealists battling through New England blizzards in support of an inspirational but surely doomed candidate: it sounds like Josh, Leo and Toby doing their best for Jed Bartlet in The West Wing, which is where Bartlet, of course, ends up. "We're not there yet, baby," laughs Power. "It's pretty unglamorous, all cheeseburgers and Cheetos so far."

Not there - but nearly. We meet in London, the day before the Texas and Ohio primaries, which could signal the end of Hillary Clinton's candidacy. "Fuck!" she shouts. "I'm here, I'm in the wrong place." If she sounds relaxed, humorous, it's because she's clearly confident. Plans have already been made for Clinton's withdrawal. "If he does well," she says, "one of the questions will be how to integrate the Clinton people. Because we want to maximise our technical expertise and be welcoming." Not all will be greeted with open arms, however: veterans of Bill's administrations, yes; others Power dismisses in pretty uncomplimentary terms. "We don't want to end up in a lowest-common-denominator operation, which is what, I think, actually, really hurt her." Twenty-five people on every call when setting policy, she explains, and too many people ready to caution "No, you can't say that".

Power, 37, is part of a group of five senior foreign policy advisers to Obama. As a columnist for Time magazine (which named her one of the 100 most influential scientists and thinkers in 2004), author of an award-winning book on genocide, as well as reporting the war from the Balkans in the Nineties, she is perhaps the most media-prominent. Certainly, people assume that what she says is what Obama believes. The circumstances of their meeting suggest an immediate connection: he called her out of the blue to ask about her genocide book, after which they had a lengthy lunch and she decided to take leave from Harvard there and then, in 2005. "There's no one else I would even consider moving into a hotel room for," she jokes. This Irish-born, self-proclaimed "humanitarian hawk" has the senator's ear, all right.

The key to what she - and Obama - thinks is to be found in her new book, a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special envoy to Iraq, who died when the organisation's building in Baghdad was bombed in 2003.

"I gave a talk in California last week all about Sergio and the guidance he could give us for our time," she says. She mentions talking to dictators; promoting the concept of "dignity", possibly over democratisation and human rights; freedom from fear; humility about the world's complexity, but still rising to its challenges. "A number of people came up to me afterwards and said, 'Wow, that's the Obama doctrine,' and I was like, 'Oh my god, it is.'"

Her book gives an insight into the workings of the UN since the 1970s, not least because Vieira de Mello managed to get himself sent to nearly every flashpoint from Beirut in 1982 to East Timor in 1999 and, last, Iraq. More than that, though, it is a guide to Obama, for Power makes ceaseless comparisons between the two. Obama, she writes in her acknowledgements, is "the person whose rigour and compassion bear the closest resemblance to Sergio's that I have ever seen".

In the world

Over coffee at the Waldorf Hilton, she continues: "What unites them is that they both spent a lot of time in broken places. They both have these gargantuan intellects that enabled them to hold very complex thoughts, but also this amazing charisma that let them market whatever they ended up with in terms of policy judgements. Both of them understood that by being in the world, whether that's Indonesia or Kenya or inner-city Chicago, there's a great deal more proximity to pain than most politicians have. I haven't ever written a 500-page book about anyone else, and I haven't ever quit my job at Harvard to go and work for anybody else."

Like Vieira de Mello, Obama is "comfortable crossing boundaries". They also have in common a willingness to talk to dictators; and here Obama needs to be careful. When the former Yugoslavia was disintegrating, Vieira de Mello was so obsequious to the Serb leaders Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic that he was nicknamed "Serbio".

"In his relationship with evil, he almost got a little seduced," she admits. The way to do it, according to Power, is "to be in the room with the bad guys but not to check your principles in at the door". Obama would engage with Iran's President Ahmadinejad. He would sit down with North Korea and Syria. Is there anyone he wouldn't talk to? "Not among elected heads of state. He won't talk to Hamas, but he would talk to Abbas."

This seems inconsistent with America's talk of spreading democracy - after all, Hamas is a democratically elected government, and Mahmoud Abbas's party, Fatah, lost the last popular vote. "Well, Abbas is the head of state, so he's going to talk to heads of state." Don't you have to trust to the democratic process? Not necessarily, seems to be the answer, as Power cites US dealings with Algeria, where Washington remained silent when the army stepped in after an Islamic party won the 1991 elections, and Egypt, where full democracy remains as elusive as the Sphinx. "You know, there is a long tradition in the US of, um, promoting elections up to the point that you get an outcome you don't like. Look at Latin America in the Cold War." Take Salvador Allende, the Marxist elected as president of Chile in 1970 and overthrown in a CIA-backed coup three years later. "We were trying to figure out if we could promote that election, but we certainly didn't love the outcome. We played a role in assassinating an elected leader."

The odd fib

Power's demeanour is so different by this point that I don't believe she's convinced by what she's saying. Dissembling does not come at all easily to her, and if she is to be part of an Obama White House she will have to learn to deliver the odd fib more persuasively. I think she agrees with her friend Sergio (they didn't know each other well, but she has a biographer's affection for him) that you should talk to anyone, literally anyone, so that you leave open the possibility of improving relations; and if that ultimately fails, at least you have the measure of your enemy. "Obama has talked a lot about the importance of moving away from electocracy," she says, trying to move on to more comfortable territory, and suggesting that the way people actually live is more important than the "reification of elections".

"In terms of how radical the shift will be, I think it's very hard. There's going to be a huge foreign service and civil service that he will inherit, senators and congressmen who have already been elected. So I think he is one guy, trying to steer this ship of cacophonous agendas into a new place."

In other words, promising to shut Guantanamo Bay, ban extraordinary rendition and pull troops out of Iraq within 18 months is fine. So is striking at al-Qaeda positions in Pakistan without the government's consent, an Obama line widely thought of as a gaffe when he delivered it last August.

"There will be situations where the priority is self-defence," she says, indicating that a preference for multilateralism only goes so far. "President Obama, like every other leader on earth, is still going to be looking out for national and economic interests. States don't cease to be states overnight just because they get a great visionary as their new president." But it is politically impossible for Obama to talk to Hamas, even if he wants to. She can't say that, though, especially when vicious internet smears are making lurid allegations about his "Muslim past".

In Nevada, Power was recently asked if it was true that Obama's father had died when a suicide bomber chained 300lb of explosives to him (he actually died in a car crash in Nairobi in 1982). "Emails like that get blasted through the country. It's nonsense, just pure nonsense, but it circulates around Democratic voters." Others have suggested that Obama was educated in a madrasa and is advised by anti-Semites - a reference partly to Power, who has been fiercely attacked by bloggers objecting to her questioning the US's axiomatic support for Israel on security matters. "So much of it is about: 'Is he going to be good for the Jews?'"

The next president, says Power, is going to have to "do a lot of rehabilitation" on this issue. "All we talk about is 'Islamic terrorism'. If the two words are associated for long enough it's obviously going to have an effect on how people think about Muslims. But I think Obama's going to do wonders for closing those chasms. Even just opening up a conversation is going to get us some of the way. And it's not insignificant that he spent time in a Muslim country, that he is half Kenyan - a lot of barriers have been bust through."

Ultimately, Power thinks that these smear tactics can be overcome, but only by constant battle. We talk about the Swiftboat veterans who besmirched John Kerry's distinguished Vietnam record (he was decorated for bravery and won three Purple Hearts for being wounded in the line of duty) in 2004. "That lost him the election. There's no question. Nobody benefited more from that than George Bush, but nobody could ever tie him or Karl Rove to it. So you're dealing with these Deep Throats running around meeting people under oak trees in the capital. It's 'Would you do this for us, because we don't want to be degraded by this kind of slander? But we would love the slander to happen.'" That's what's been going on, she thinks. Fast rebuttal is the answer. "The lesson we got was that the only thing worse than John Kerry being Swiftboated was his being slow to respond. God love him, he must have thought that having got shrapnel in his ass out there bought him some credibility. It didn't."

Tough love

More grist to the mill of those who wish to tar Obama with any association that could hurt him was provided on 3 March when a long-time supporter, Tony Rezko, went on trial for corruption charges in Chicago. Question marks already hung over Rezko's head when Obama involved himself in a property deal with his old associate. Although there was no suggestion of impropriety on Obama's part, he has since called the decision "bone-headed", and the Clinton campaign was not slow to raise the spectre of dirt, if not actually throw it.

Why did Obama have anything to do with Rezko? "We've talked about Rezko as a phenomenon in politics," says Power, "but I've never said to him, 'Why did you do this dumb thing?' I'm all for tough love, but that just doesn't seem constructive." It's difficult to keep an eye on all the sources of financial donations, she says, adding evenly: "I don't think it's a good idea for the Clintons to get into a competition over who's got the most unsavoury donations, you know what I mean?"

Refreshingly unsmoothed by politics, Power - and, by extension, Obama - is advocating a nuanced form of foreign policy that takes "the world as it is" but seeks its betterment. It is a pragmatism informed by principle, as well as a certain briskness. At one point, discussing the UN, I say "not to criticise Ban Ki-moon" and Power butts in: "Oh go ahead, please do." She opens her hands wide at the UN secretary general's name. "Is that all there is?" she asks. "Can we afford to do without a global figure, a global leader?"

Sergio Vieira de Mello is sadly no longer available to fill such a role. But Samantha Power knows a man who is.

"Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World" is published by Allen Lane, the Penguin Press

Power: the CV

1970 Born in Dublin

1979 Emigrates to the US with her mother

1988 Studies history at Yale University

1989 Tiananmen Square protests: decides not to be a sports writer

1993 War reporter in the former Yugoslavia

1995 Harvard Law School

1998 Founder executive director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard

2003 A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide wins Pulitzer Prize

2004 One of Time's top 100 thinkers

2005 Adviser to Barack Obama

2007 Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Harvard

Research by

Alyssa McDonald

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge