It’s a moment where you’re refreshingly surprised that someone is able to show so much emotional candor at such a high level of office. This being one of the main reasons why Barack Obama tapped her on the shoulder for the lifespan of his post.
Before her time in office, she was a virtuous academic, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter known for her powerful accounting of the world’s genocides from Darfur to Kosovo. In 2008, she joined Obama’s cabinet as a special adviser on foreign affairs and human rights. She then went on in 2013 to be appointed the youngest ambassador to the United Nations in history. One of only a few women at the UN to hold a similar position, there she managed to get her hands’ dirty scuffling with Russia over the Syrian civil war atrocities and forming a path of action around the Ebola crisis.
But since retiring from political life, she’s had time to reflect on the bigger picture and what worries her most is America’s retreat into a political wilderness, without a ‘team captain’ as Samantha Power puts it, who will assert themselves morally and principally in the world? Whilst this question remains unanswered, Power wants us to know that the real strength lies in numbers where private citizens are always able to hold government or large institutions accountable for the greater good.
Samantha Power, you served as the US ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration for four years, in that time you’re described as ‘Obama’s conscience’ What do you think they meant by that?
I can’t tell you what they meant but I can tell you a little bit about my impression of how it was. It’s pretty unusual for the president of the United States to put into his cabinet someone with a background like mine; someone who has spent a lot of time in refugee camps interviewing people, who has been an activist on Darfur or the anti-atrocity movement that grew up in this country in the early part of the 21st century. But he wanted that in the room and he wanted that perspective brought to him when he was making decisions on everything from how to respond to the Arab Spring to what to do about North Korea to LGBT rights, you name it.
People tend to refer to that as ‘conscience’ but I think that’s a little simplistic because a conscience is not one that merely focuses on human rights and human consequences as I was or wanted to be. A conscience is also one trying to bring people health insurance and prevent credit card companies from charging really high penalties for vulnerable people who don’t read the small print.
So President Obama’s whole agenda, domestically and internationally, was rooted in his own conscience but I think what is usually meant by others is a distinct human rights perspective where I would often go out in the field, as you see in the film, and bring those testimonies back into the rooms that have tended to be pretty sterile and lacking in that perspective over the generations.
President Barack Obama, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power, attend a wreath laying ceremony at the Memorial for United Nations staff killed in Iraq at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City, Sept. 23, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Prior to joining the Obama administration, you worked as a journalist and academic, so I’m sure you brought a lot of intellectual ‘baggage’, if I can use that term, into the government. Reflecting on it now, do you think the ideas that you brought with you were initially stress tested in any way?
I like the phrase ‘stress test’. I think it’s the right descriptor of a process that can be very bruising. However what I tried to do in my prior work was interview hundreds and hundreds of officials who comprised these institutions – whether it was the US government, particularly for my first book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, or the UN for my second book Chasing the Flame. So as an academic my aspiration was to actually capture for the readers and the broader public what the constraints were that people in these jobs faced.
Fundamentally you have to make decisions in these jobs about what the potential risks and benefits are of doing something. This is an idea that I certainly brought but Obama was already inclined to that style of thinking, you have to measure the risks of whatever the tool is that you’re contemplating against the risk of inaction or maintaining the status quo.
My approach was quite pragmatic, really a traditional cross-benefit approach and I was pretty alert to what stood in the way of, let’s say, relieving people from the abuse of their governments. Every day I was an ambassador I just wished I had about 40 more hours in the day because my list of people I was trying to get out of jail or dedicated rethinks of peacekeeping missions that have existed for a zillion years, my diplomacy on Syria or anything else, you just run out of runway and to experience that is also to be reminded of just how precious one’s time in these jobs are.
"Every day I was an ambassador I just wished I had about 40 more hours in the day."
One of the things that most fascinated and surprised me in the documentary was just how vicious things are behind closed doors. We always imagine diplomacy to be peaceful, rational discussion but sometimes, heated explosions do take place – I’m thinking in particular of your scathing attack on Russia for their lack of accountability in Syria where you said ‘Are you really incapable of shame?’ Do you feel like this kind of upfront diplomacy is needed more now as a tool for dealing with inaction?
You know, it’s complicated. I believe and I practiced public accountability diplomacy. I believe it is essential. But if your diplomacy gets reduced so that you achieve nothing because that kind of accountability for a country like Putin’s Russia is not going to happen – they’re not going to change their minds or see their interests differently because I asked them rhetorically if they were incapable of shame. I had to do that behind the scenes, but by the same token, for me not to do that when they are lying abjectly would be to let down the people of Syria or Ukraine.
It would also let off the hook those countries that want to duck and not take a position one way or the other. One of the things that I find really disturbing about working in the UN is how much mealy-mouthed accommodation there is of people’s rule-breaking and aggression.
Part of what you are trying to do is move the middle if you see what I mean. Again, that is a public tool. If it is the only tool, and sometimes in the current administration it feels like it is, you don’t then take your Russian counterpart aside and say, ‘Ok, where are our overlapping interests here? What incremental modest progress can we make, even against the backdrop of obstruction or a standoff?’ Then you are not optimising and you are not doing what you are there to do. You’ve got to try to find a way to identify your shared interests and peel off as much as you can from cooperation, even at a time of unprecedented chill between our two countries in the post-Cold War world.
In the film The Final Year, we watch John Kerry slowly closing the Iran deal. He then goes on to say that we should turn our focus towards Yemen, Syria and North Korea and that the US has a ‘to do list’. Considering everything you have said regarding inaction and the approach to genocide in your academic work, what are your thoughts about America always playing the role of the world’s peacekeeper? Does it ever border on interventionism?
I think terms like intervention are very unhelpful because military intervention is so rare, as it should be because so often it goes badly. But diplomatic action, mobilising countries to come together and pressure another country, those kinds of things have to happen because it seems that throughout human history when countries or individuals feel impunity they often do bad things. Not only do they do bad things they do dumb stuff.
So for all the flaws in America’s decision making over the years – Vietnam, Iraq, we come under criticism for our response to Syria – there’s no other kind of ‘team captain’ in the international system. So when the Ebola crisis happened we ‘intervened’ with 2000 health workers and soldiers, and this is why I say that the term intervention is unhelpful. We ‘intervened’ after the earthquake in Haiti to help rebuild the country and rescue people from under the rubble. We intervened diplomatically to mobilise countries to sanction Iran with the heaviest economic sanctions in a very long time, and when those sanctions started to bite we mobilised a section of countries to lead a diplomatic effort to end Iran’s nuclear weapons programme peacefully.
Right now, because of Trump’s retreat from the global stage and his complete disdain for alliances and international frameworks, despite the fact that most of the threats facing US cross borders, there is no team captain on the global stage. That’s bad for everyone and even countries like China who are not that far away from wanting to be team captain, but their interest in solving a big public health epidemic or pressuring the Myanmar government to stop murdering the Rohingya, that’s not where China is going to be.
"The only thing worse than US leadership is a world without any leader at all. That’s the world we are in right now."
So we are in this weird situation where there are a lot of countries around the world that are very mixed on US leadership because of the Vietnams and the Iraqs, which are really serious things that have happened and created a lot of suspicion in different corners of the world, but the only thing worse than US leadership is a world without any leader at all. That’s the world we are in right now.
We have to ask how will the international system have adapted to this strategic retreat on the part of the US, will China start to exert itself more and more? The kind of international order that China wants to lead is not an international order that benefits the US or democracies around the world; they have a very different kind of interest at heart.
Out of all the mishaps and strange behaviour of Trump’s administration…
That’s very generous – they’re not mishaps or mistakes, unfortunately, they are willful actions, which is worse because we can learn from mistakes.
President Barack Obama talks with Amb. Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, following a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Has there been a point in the first year of the new administration taking power, when you really thought how serious and bizarre this presidency is?
I mean, it’s overwhelming just looking through your phone every morning. I think the taunts to a famously crazy nuclear weapons state leader and the recklessness of that; the idea that this reality TV, hyperbolic showman would think that it would be in anyone’s interest to bring that approach to a very high stakes relationship or non-relationship is so dangerous. That’s when you really start to look at your children when you tuck them into bed at night and feel fearful. There have been a lot of moments like that.
The flipside is, if you had told me a year ago that 389 women would be running for seats in the US Congress I would have been like, ‘What? Really?’ So the good news is that people are moving and reacting and we are seeing the results in the elections post-Trump.
One of the things that I have come to understand more than I could when I was in the executive branch is the extent to which non-administrative parts of America remain an important part of the country. We have to remember that our courts and press corps, who are getting attacked, should keep doing what they’re doing. This is the benefit of having a thick but vulnerable democracy.
"It’s everything from being drowned out in a meeting or making comments that are ignored until they are made by a male counterpart to sexual assault."
You are a mother as well as being one of the highest-ranking female US politicians for a period. How do you feel about the changing landscape of female involvement in politics?
Well, foreign policy in the US and a lot of other countries is exceptionally male-dominated. It certainly is lacking in the same way as many different fields, akin to something like physics. Before coming to government I had never really been that self-conscious about being a woman in the workplace; as a journalist I was off in the field with my backpack and a notebook and I wouldn’t pay that much attention to gender ratios because I was just trying to get the access in order to write what I needed to write.
Then you go into an institution and you start to feel a lot of those dynamics that a number of women have been through, even from the State Department and elsewhere, to write a letter that they titled #MeTooNationalSecurity. It’s everything from being drowned out in a meeting or making comments that are ignored until they are made by a male counterpart to sexual assault.
Andrew Harnik / AP
President Obama made some strides by virtue of appointing more women to run cabinet agencies than any other president in US history, but the lower levels are really where the issues lie. That goes all the way back to campuses and university departments and even who appears on television to talk about national security because across all the networks like Fox News and MSNBC 80% of the people representing the government were men. It’s the same with think tanks, where 9 out of 10 are run by men. Now that I am back on a campus I need to be much more self-conscious and frankly a better mentor; really taking the time to meet with young women who are torn about trying to make it in such a male-dominated world. My message would be that if not us then who?
Right now we are in a time of polarisation and a lot of people feel helpless so what would your advice be to people in order for us to keep developing empathic tools?
I think the first piece of advice would be to not get daunted by the level of cruelty and coldness and polarisation. Right now, it’s so overwhelming just going on Twitter and seeing all this divisiveness; we’ve never had a president in any party who has sought to pit one part of this country against the other. It’s so easy to think, ‘Oh god, he’s the president and he has this huge platform, who am I? I’m just this little citizen.’
I came across this quote from Martin Luther King not long ago that I just love, for this moment especially, for how overwhelmed and small we all feel. He said something like, ‘If you can’t be a tree be a bush. If you can’t be a highway be a trail.’ So it’s going to be the sum of little things that get us back on course.
Because I’m a former cabinet official I can sign an Amicus letter to the Supreme Court on the Muslim ban. None of the people reading this interview are going to be able to solve the Muslim ban and that level of hate, but I guarantee that there is some Muslim refugee or immigrant in your community who is really struggling right now because the institutions of the State have turned them into a pariah, just by virtue of their wearing a hijab or whatever.
The second thing I would say is that it is also very tempting to run away from government and politics right now because there is so much money in it, gerrymandering and cronyism etc. But, once again, what’s very exciting about this moment is how many people are not turning away – they’re saying ‘Well, if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.’ You’re only really going to fix the whole range of issues, from polarisation and disregard for truth to people not getting health insurance and being discriminated against due to their sexual orientation or religion, through politics. I guarantee that there is some organisation nearby anyone reading this that they can volunteer with and that share their values, or instead of spending $10 on coffee they could spend that on the election campaign for that person. They could even run for office themselves or work in an election campaign office to get that exposure. But we are only going to zag if we change the political balance back in the direction of a more humane and caring world.
The Final Year is out now in cinemas