Power Moves

The former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power wants people to take the long view about their careers and their concerns about the current state of affairs.
Photo by Tony LuongPhoto by Tony Luong
By Sarah Abrams

Sitting in Byerly Hall on the Radcliffe campus, where she is spending the year as a Radcliffe fellow, the former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power JD ’99, RI ’18 talks about the memoir she is in the process of writing. Just weeks after the Parkland school shooting, in which 17 people were killed and 17 were injured, Power hopes the timing and the audience for her memoir, tentatively titled “Education of an Idealist,” are the right ones.

“This feels very much like one of those moments when a major reclamation project is in order,” says Power, Radcliffe’s 2017–2018 Perrin Moorhead Grayson and Bruns Grayson Fellow. “When I see things in the news like the Parkland students taking matters into their own hands that the grown-ups have managed to screw up over so many decades, I feel affirmed in my judgment that young people are the right audience for a book about how we try to change some slice of the world.”

Returning to the Harvard campus after almost a decade in Washington and New York serving in the Obama administration, Power is struck by the discouragement and impatience she sees in many of today’s youth regarding their choices and opportunities. Through the telling of her own story, she hopes to show that the path is often bumpy and not always obvious and that that’s okay. 

“They really care about things, but they say to me, ‘What I do won’t make a difference.’ They say, ‘I wasn’t like you,’ and I say, ‘I wasn’t like me. Let me go back.’”

Photo by Tony Luong.Photo by Tony Luong.

Power’s Career Path

Her memoir charts the circuitous nature of her own career path—from journalist to academic to presidential advisor to diplomat. Power was just nine years old in 1979 when she emigrated with her family from Ireland. An athlete in high school, where she played basketball and ran cross-country, Power at one point wanted to be a television sportscaster. In 1989, after her freshman year at Yale University, she interned in the sports division at CBS in Atlanta. But after watching the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests on the CBS feed at work, she shifted her focus from sports to the world at large—specifically to issues of human rights. 

Soon after graduation, in 1992, Power set off for Bosnia with little more than a press pass, reporting back for the next two years on the atrocities she was witnessing. Frustrated by her inability to change the course of events, she left journalism and in 1995 enrolled at Harvard Law School. There she began writing what would eventually become her first book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002). In 2003, A Problem from Hell received a Pulitzer Prize.

In 2005, while she was teaching at Harvard Kennedy School, her career took one of its most dramatic turns when she was contacted by then–Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s office. Obama had read A Problem from Hell and wanted to meet with her. Their meeting resulted in Power’s taking a leave from Harvard to advise Obama and eventually joining his 2008 campaign for president. After a negative comment she made about his Democratic primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, went viral (she believed it was off the record), Power resigned from the campaign. Her exile was short-lived, however.

Once in office, Obama appointed Power to the National Security Council as special assistant to the president in charge of human rights and multilateral affairs. In yet another unexpected career twist, in 2013, she was nominated by Obama to be the US ambassador to the United Nations. In an 87–10 Senate vote, Power became the youngest person ever to hold the office. In both roles, hers was a clear and persistent voice calling for countries to unite to stop the suffering of people around the world, from civilians in Syria and Iraq to victims of the extremist group Boko Haram in Nigeria and casualties of the Ebola virus in West Africa. 

Power looks back—a little amazed—at the unlikely trajectory of her career and hopes that the twists and turns along the way will inspire others to focus not on a specific title or role but, rather, on knowing what matters to them and then getting to work. It is okay, she says, to have no clear idea of where you want to end up.

“When I meet with young people and I describe to them the serendipity and breaks I got, but also the hours I put in,” Power says, “I hope it can make more accessible the idea that they, too, can find a path into journalism or activism or government or diplomacy. I would like to find a way to make things that feel out of reach feel more possible.”

Students on campus, she says, often ask how they can become a UN ambassador. “Not that way, I’m afraid,” she says. “I don’t think it works to choose a title to aim for. Instead, I ask them, ‘What’s the very specific and small thing that is within your power now, which if you do it, will also help you grow and learn?’ I tell them, ‘If you keep growing and learning, the results should take care of themselves.’”

Writing Her Book at the Radcliffe Institute

Her year as a fellow at Radcliffe has not only given Power the time to reflect and write, but also offered her a perspective she might not have gained had she gone off to write on her own. Each year, Radcliffe brings together fellows from diverse backgrounds, with wide-ranging talents. She recently attended a talk by one Radcliffe colleague on the art of textiles and by another on ancient Greece and the implications of its approach to justice for our current criminal justice debates.  

“The temptation for everyone who writes in the wake of government service is to litigate some of the debates that went on,” Power says. “My being in an environment at Radcliffe where people bring such wholly different perspectives has helped pull me out of my government, bureaucratic navel-gazing. The breadth of experience I’m surrounded by has created a broader aperture than I think I might otherwise have had coming straight out of the government. It has helped me to look up rather than back and try to write something that’s more enduring, more forward looking.”

Readers will be disappointed, however, Power says, if they think her new book is about how an activist and idealist had the “spirit knocked out of them by cold reality.” She understands why readers might have that expectation, given the trope of the naïve idealist. But, she says, she understood from the start the realities of working in a large government bureaucracy. 

“I knew it was hard before I went in,” Power says. “Of course it’s hard. For my book A Problem from Hell, I interviewed 300 US officials or people who influenced US policy.” But she thought the trade-offs were well worth it. “I also knew that when the machinery of the US government is working on behalf of the American people or vulnerable people abroad, or on behalf of our security, or in order to fight the Ebola epidemic, it can make a huge difference.”

It is gratitude, not disillusionment, that Power regularly expresses about her eight years in government, about the privilege and opportunity to be part of a team that is trying to help improve people’s lives around the world. Still an avid sports enthusiast, whose devotion to the Boston Red Sox began long before the team’s World Series wins, Power sometimes uses sports analogies to make her points. “People often ask me what I am most proud of, but I don’t even know how to answer. When you’re in government, you’re on a team to such an extent you don’t feel like any particular achievement is yours to be proud of. You may occasionally be in the headlines for this or that, but when it’s working, it works because so many people are rowing in the same direction.” 

Alex Wong/Getty ImagesAlex Wong/Getty Images

An Optimist and a Pragmatist

Today—recently settled in Concord, Massachusetts, with her husband, the Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, and their two children, Declan, nine, and Rian, six—Power is enjoying the new-found time and flexibility. “I had a lot of lost time to make up with my kids,” she says. “I have taken advantage of the very different flexibility that I now have compared to when I was at the White House or working as ambassador, when I was being woken up in the middle of the night responding to various crises. It’s really affirming for my kids that I’m here.”

Power is also pleased and a little surprised at how her new life has offered her yet another role. Instead of rubbing elbows with heads of state and monarchs, she now finds herself involved in domestic politics, raising money and speaking out in behalf of candidates running for Congress, while also joining the board of advisors for Let America Vote, which fights voter suppression. As a journalist, an author, an academic, and a diplomat, Power previously focused exclusively on foreign policy and national security issues.

“It’s funny, because change in oneself happens so gradually you don’t really see it happening,” she says about her enthusiasm for local politics, “but what has become clear to me since leaving government is that the extent to which we can keep the United States strong and safe is inextricably linked with whether or not we can recover the health of our democracy. Obama used to quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said, ‘The most important office of any democracy is not that of president but that of citizen.’ We have to work on fixing what ails us here or our division will help those abroad who have decidedly undemocratic tendencies. And what we do—most recently on Cuban normalization, the Iran deal, climate—will be undone.”

Having become a US citizen in 1993, Power is especially distressed by the country’s current treatment of immigrants and refugees. “In the modern era, we have never been more unwelcoming to refugees or immigrants in our society. We’ve changed our mission statement as a nation.”

Despite the results of the 2016 presidential election, which she admits she and many others in the Obama administration did not see coming, she remains both an optimist and a pragmatist. “I’ve worked very hard not to allow the election to infect my temperament and my way of engaging with other people, but instead to let it motivate me.”  

In the many interviews she has been asked to give over the past year, Power repeatedly strove to offer a balanced perspective. “There are the reckless tweets and the hollowing of the State Department and the pulling out of treaties and the insulting of our allies and the cozying up to authoritarians,” she says. “That’s our foreign policy at one level. But our foreign policy is also what our institutions have been doing—the reporters who keep getting attacked and yet pound the pavement and expose significant corruption, making themselves a check on some of the worst excesses of this administration; the courts that have offered some protection to Dreamers; and some of our mayors and governors and people in the private sector who have combined to do everything they can to come as close as possible to meeting our Paris commitments. All of this only underscores how indispensable citizen action and elections are."

Returning to the Classroom

Power is looking forward to returning to the classroom come fall, with a joint appointment at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School. “I come back with a heightened appreciation for the privilege of encountering young people whose minds remain open, and I say that because it doesn’t always last. This kind of intellectual laboratory, where you can explore ideas and hear different viewpoints, whether politically or because you’re from different countries or different socioeconomic backgrounds—it’s not happening enough in America or around the world.”

Power is asked whether, after so many years away from Boston, her loyalty to the Red Sox endures. She says it does, although she admits that some things have changed.

“I see that same baseball pathology in my sweet son, who’s a Washington Nationals fan, and now, in my karmic negotiation with the higher powers, I’m much more interested in my son’s happiness than my own, so the Red Sox prayer quotient is a little lower because mine are now reallocated for my son.”

And with that she’s off to pick up her daughter at school.

Sarah Abrams is a freelance writer based in Cambridge.

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