Once a Backer of Military Force, Biden Nominee Now Embraces Soft Power

WASHINGTON — Near the end of the 2014 documentary “Watchers of the Sky,” which chronicles the origins of the legal definition of genocide, Samantha Power grows emotional. At the time, Ms. Power was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, and, she said, had “great visibility into a lot of the pain” in the world.

From that perch, preventing mass atrocities abroad required “thinking through what we can do about it, to exhaust the tools at your disposal,” Ms. Power said in the film. “And I always think about the privilege of, you know, of getting to try — just to try.”

Few doubt Ms. Power’s zeal — given her career as a war correspondent, human rights activist, academic expert and foreign policy adviser — even if it has meant advocating military force to stop widespread killings.

Now, as President Biden’s nominee to lead the United States Agency for International Development, she is preparing to rejoin the government as an administrator of soft power, and resist using weapons as a means of deterrence and punishment that she has pushed for in the past.

Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights for Mr. Obama, described a “perception that China is exporting corruption” with its loans and development projects.

For example, a study in February by the International Republican Institute, a private nonprofit group that receives government funding and promotes democracy, concluded that Panama’s decision in 2017 to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan “appears to have been driven by payoffs” from China. It also noted that Nepal regularly revoked the legal status of Tibetan refugees after becoming economically reliant on Beijing.

The American aid agency alone cannot match the funds that China has seeded in developing countries. But Mr. Malinowski said its support to journalists, legal advisers and legitimate opposition groups could “expose and combat” corrosive foreign leaders who had benefited from Beijing’s financial backing and playbook for how to remain in power.

“There is one issue that has risen to the top in this administration that I know she is very focused on, and that’s fighting corruption,” Mr. Malinowski said of Ms. Power. “And U.S.A.I.D. has a very important role to play there, potentially.”

At her confirmation hearing in March, Ms. Power told senators she was moved to pursue a career in foreign policy after the 1989 massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. She described China’s “coercive and predatory approach, which is so transactional” in its dealings with developing countries that ultimately become dependent on Beijing through what she called “debt-trap diplomacy.”

“I think it’s not going over that well, and that creates an opening for the United States,” Ms. Power told Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana.

The mostly benign prodding by Democrats and Republicans during the hearing signaled how countering China has become a rare, if reliable, issue of bipartisanship in Congress. “It’s absolutely essential that our development dollars, I think, be used to advance our geostrategic priorities,” Mr. Young said.

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