Samantha Power


I think if I learned a lesson I probably learned learn one lesson to well which was to be more skittish around the press so even when I was UN ambassador. I wasn't nearly as accessible as I might have been and I think. In retrospect if you look at one of the issues in our current politics like I don't think we sold American foreign policy and how it mattered for the American people will as well as we might have but the bigger lesson was more personal which was man like life should happen and and you need people and and to be vulnerable and to be taken care of open yourself up. Because you never know what's GonNa hit you Samantha. Power was born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States As a child she started her professional life as a journalist reporting from the Bosnian civil war of the mid nineteen ninety s her reflections on what she perceived does a breakdown of Western policy in the face of genocide informed her first book a problem from Hell it won her appeal at surprise and attracted the attention of many the American politicians among them Illinois. Senator Barack Obama who hired her as a foreign policy adviser and later as president appointed to the United State's ambassador to the United Nations. The story told in Samantha. Powers' terrific new memoir. The education of an idealist is over journey from arguing doing that. Something must be done to trying to actually do it. I'm Andrew Phillip Samantha. Power joins me at MIDORI. House here in London for the big interview the Samantha Power. Welcome to the beginning of you. Great to be here. I want to start at the start as indeed. Your book does with your upbringing. Orland and you'll move at the age of nine of the United States and ask whether you reflected on whether diplomats are born or made because the the two things that struck me from the early period. There's the attempts to intercede with your parents who are not getting on brilliantly for a number of reasons and then once having moved to America we find you negotiating with God on behalf of the Pittsburgh pirates successfully. I might add in the nineteen seventy nine world series did. Did you start thinking that way you ended up was coined of where you were always destined. Listen to go no one million years. I hadn't thought of my you know kneeling down to pray for the Pittsburgh Pirates as my first summit limit with a and one with God. I wasn't entirely sure he was listening. But I think coming from elsewhere at whatever age and having family family and close family ties somewhere else in some other part of the world certainly makes you more outward oriented than you would otherwise be so I probably was had had an eye on what was happening around the world more than I would have if I'd grown up in a more sort of traditional American household but later when I moved away from wanting just to be a sports journalist and broadcaster which was really all I wanted you know until my early twenty s but once I made the shift you know then I look back and I see all of these precursors and less about negotiating because I didn't succeed in saving my parents marriage but more more putting yourself in the shoes of others which I think is a key ingredient to being an effective diplomat is to be able to not simply judge the positions of someone on the other side of the table. Even if it's the Russian ambassador and you want to strangle him at sometimes but but in fact say. I wonder what it'd be like to be getting instructions from Putin. and I wonder what it'd be like to have this nationalist sort of surge in my country and then be confronted with this American. WHO's news on a public stage denouncing you and what your country is doing but then you being the Russian ambassador wanting to find source of cooperation with her like I wonder I wonder I wonder I? I think to be able to bridge those distances I don't know maybe being an insider outsider outsider insider left me with that which I think did help for diplomacy eh on the coming from elsewhere thing though I want to ask specifically about the elsewhere you came from which was the Republic of Ireland and with you think that ended up being an advantage advantage. I is you you seek to make your way as a foreign correspondent in Bosnia in the mid nineties as many journalists of that generation did but later then working as a diplomat on on behalf of the United States where the thought it was an advantage or a disadvantage or indeed any kind of thing at all to think that maybe I'm approaching these things like an Irish person person not necessarily like an American. It's just it's a thing I wonder about because having reported from a few places in the Balkans and the Middle East where you keep running up against against the sort of invited hatred or even indeed in Northern Ireland. I've often wondered with being an Australian as I am is some kind of disadvantage. Because I don't really have a frame of Reference Fronts for most of the things these people are talking about an American journalist. I know sometimes said the same thing. Well I think that conflict even though never affected did me or my closest loved ones but was never something that I thought of his necessarily quote over there so just because the troubles were so nearby I mean I write in the book about how Nineteen Seventy Four. The year of my brother's birthday was a big explosion and terrorist attack in downtown Dublin. Very near ear to where we lived. So that sense of vulnerability the sense that even perfectly reasonable civilized people can spiral into violent periods. You know probably carry that with me somewhere such that then when I went to Bosnia on I had both my Irish passport my American passport people would say well. You're Irish you understand. You know there was the great saying in the Balkans that I've also heard applied to airline which is nothing learned nothing forgotten You know the role of history in the present but when I got to the UN. I think whether it was specific Ireland or just that I was an immigrant was definitely a source of strength. Not so much for me. Maybe it was for me at the margins but the idea that America is a country that has has immigrants at its core such that. Not just me Madeleine. Albright a check refugee Zalmay Khalilzad. Who'd come to the United States from Afghanistan Justin who was George W Bush's UN ambassador? I mean the number of people who commented on just like what a symbol it is of what has been until quite recently of a a proud American strength which is this pluralism and e. pluribus unum and we all come together. And then not only do we come together but it's are immigrants. Who are the face of our country at the UN? And I mean you can't measure soft power and where it comes from and you know what portion is rap and what portion is the NBA and what portion is having immigrant the U N ambassadors but. Certainly that is something that makes America an attractive place for all of our other foibles. The personification I guess of an idea expressed in a speech by Ronald Reagan. What now seems a million years ago I think it was his valedictory speech? If memory serves where he talked about the peculiar genius of the United States being that any bodey anywhere in the world could dream of one day. Being an American in the same way that you can't really feel like that about many other nationalities. Yeah I mean. I had this experience experience again which I write about because still strikes me so much as as ambassador as a cabinet official. I had this beautiful privilege of being able to quasi quasi preside over naturalization ceremonies where back in nineteen ninety-three. I went back to the Brooklyn courthouse where I'd been sworn in as an American now I find myself up at the top. The Room in this wood-paneled courtroom with the judge watching dozens of new Americans summiteers all in their Sunday. Best taking the oath breath and was struck me at the moment was in this first moment was just wild like I look at this list of names and I can't pronounce half of them and yet now from this moment moment they're all American names. These are now American. Nate and I saw amazing. Then I go back to the US mission to the UN. And I walk in and I see the longest serving winging administrative assistant secretary at the US mission to the UN and her dad had immigrated from China come by himself with one pair of pants and worked at a laundromat in Iowa before he was able to bring his daughter one of our secretaries to this country. My human rights adviser was a daughter of Lebanese immigrants who had fled the civil war. My special assistant was the granddaughter of Holocaust Survivors Might Deputy was a Palestinian American. My Syria advisor was a son of a former Syrian Air Force officer officer who came to the United States and actually drove ice cream trucks. You know what struck me was not that the. US mission the UN was exceptional. Pretty much any office building at least in New York but in much of America. You're gonNA find that kind of lineage where everybody's either an immigrant or descendant of an immigrant or just a couple of generations removed and including including of course at the White House with the spouse of the the current president's right is not only an immigrant herself but brought her family through this so called chain migration to America so just kind of crazy now that this has become something that some Americans including our president. WanNa Walk Away From and somehow. How CIA's at trend to be bucked when it's too late for that? I'm afraid that like we're in the country as immigrants is not going to change. Come back to you and I wanted to go back first of all to Bosnia where you were working quite successfully. As a freelance journalist during the war was there a particular point you can recall at which you you decided that being a journalist was never going to be quite enough because it always strikes me that there is an interesting transition which some people making some. Don't there's a big undertow of a lot lot of journalism. And this certainly was about a lot of the reporting from Bosnia that something should be done. was there a moment in which you can remember thinking. Maybe one day I should be one of the people who does it. Yes I mean I think there was no grandiosity. In the moment there was no and thus I will one day. You know. I didn't have any sense that that this could happen exactly but I initially when I got to the former Yugoslavia I and my colleagues not only had the sense as you rightly. Say that quote quote. Something should be done even if we were. Ill informed on precisely what that something should be. We had that sense but we also the the locals whom we were interviewing about horrible events hence were incredibly generous with us and patient with us even having suffered unspeakable tragedy themselves even in the immediate wake of loss loss of a loved one bringing us in telling their story in the hopes that the do something brigade or the laptop generals that we had all these nicknames but that are stories. He's would move policymakers and I think in the second half of my time there toward the really the tail end of my time. There they gave up. They gave up on our governments. It's and thus kind of gave up on us as messengers and so I did have this experience once and I even you know it's painful to go back to your journals any point in your life. It's especially painful to go back to journals in your early twenties but where I'm watching Warren. Christopher and the Russian Foreign Minister and other ministers come home for one of these interminable junkets. That aren't really helping anybody but ended up being a photo op for war criminals. And I I actually right in my journal. I feel the impotence of my words nothing we say matters maybe one day I need to be on that side of the microphone because I was was in the scrum around it with my tape recorder out. Listening to these guys and again it would have seemed as likely as me playing center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It would not have assumed that the trajectory was obvious but it was an impulse to do more than just report and few years later I would have it would would have crystallized even more on. It was what I realized was no matter how powerful what I wrote was. I was so dependent on the middleman. I needed someone to read. If it even was as powerful. Yes I thought. I thought I'd written something where I'd really manage to bridge distance between my readers and for example a mass grave Dr Four. I was so dependent on someone finding the article reading the article turning the article into something. Actionable winning internal debate. Insuring that they then knew how to work the bureaucracy in order to let's get sanctions imposed against some warlord and it just seemed like there were two many steps in between so even still well at that point. I wouldn't have known how to go from being a journalist and an activist to an insider and so I still against that backdrop needed lucky break and of course the lucky break was that Barack Obama reached out to me and I suddenly found myself in a position where having dinner with him I could either take the plunge lunge and say hey. How'd you like to have a scholar of mass atrocities and genocide working on your staff or I could hang back and wonder forevermore weather my articles? We're gonNA reach someone like him you become or you gain that reputation as a scholar of genocide through your book a problem from Hell which one appeal it surprising. Isan I guess you could say that phrase something should be done is a very crass reductive subtext of what the book was actually about. Did Not your later life in actually remaking policy but researching the book talking to people. Who'd been in those rooms where they have to make that decision? Did Not modify your views on the practicalities of intervention aversion. Definitely from when I had been a journalist in Bosnia right when I was just a kind of bystander witness to what came out out of the black box of decision making so I was seeing NATO planes flying overhead monitoring. What was going on not taking action? I was seeing these diplomats traipsing through not seeming to have much leverage in their diplomacy. And so at that point I would have just been like what is going on you know. Why can't somebody pretty? Someone can just pick up the phone and fix something be it definitely and I would have had that and so by contrast your questions excellent when I start talking to hundreds of. US officials who'd been involved in the internal debates. I guess the most striking dimension of that was is contested. Policy was in fact so at a time where it looks like again the blackbox that is the United States policy. Making apparatus is producing adding something that to me. Seems Kinda feckless inside it's as live and contingent and who's up and who's down really matters batters and whether somebody is seen as a favorite of this senior official or I mean one of the most terrible examples of this was in Rwanda in the case of reporting on the US response to the Rwandan genocide. Killing of eight hundred thousand people the lower level officials having seen what had just happened in Burundi grunde where far fewer people were killed. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in genocidal killing and there had never been even any after action any press S. coverage really about any quote failure. Any questions raised about about whether Moore should have been done and so when Rwanda started talking to these officials and just hearing that they just assumed that nobody at the White House would be terribly interested in what was happening in neighboring Rwanda and especially because it was also hutu-tutsi killing again different dynamics in many ways but but they just thought people didn't care about who to intuit see in in Burundi. Why would they care about killings in Rwanda and so that it kind of self? Censorship was the humanity of each of the agents and actors behind the curtain. That really struck me. I mean they were just people people with foibles and vulnerabilities and insecurities and people who are reading signals that the signal sender didn't even necessarily think that they were weren't self conscious about sending and so that made it feel more contested and oddly more hopeful you know even writing the book. I thought I was reading a book about by standing but I ended. I love you know honing in on this idea of the up stander of like these individuals who are very moved to went into public service to be in a position to respond bond crises. Just like the ones that they were encountering and yet who were blocked in all of these ways and who and often in some cases were willing to resign over over what they perceived as America's failure to do what it should but more often than not they would stay and just cut marginalize themselves by being seen as too emotional or too attached to the people in particular country so seeing the humanity of policy making I think is something that also helps then then situate your advocacy on the outside. Then you know kind of what people are. What are the walls? They're bumping up against. I mean they're not looking away because they sort of woke up in the morning said Ho. Let's allow the Rwandan genocide. Today right everyone has other aspirations and their incommensurate values and interests that are competing in this kind of internal scrum Part of that transition you made from one side of the microphone to the other as you put it did involve becoming a public figure and quite a well known public figure bigger and there's a section in the book which I wouldn't normally mention because I'm not a big fan of the culture gaffe as a tool of journalism people's shocking shocking. Here the people people say stuff and it's not always what they necessarily meant to say in quite a lot of the time. It doesn't really mean anything. But during Barack Obama's campaign for the democratic the credit nomination she eventually secured. You made that offhand remark to a Scottish journalist referring to Hillary Clinton as a monster which did instantly make you the catch of the day. I don't was it. Ever a gate was instigate to deserve the gate less in my own mind and my family's mind monster gate you do write about in the book at some length and quite white nakedly about what an extraordinary ordeal that was to turn on the news and see all of a sudden. I'm the story in retrospect food. Do you regard that as kind of inoculating you got through that and survived therefore whatever it probably should have been and I I. I don't know exactly why I remain kind of on the verge of believing or expecting that something terrible is going to happen when you least expect it. I mean what was interesting about that moment. was that my life had changed so much in a short period of time By virtue of meeting Barack Obama went from being a critic of American foreign policy working alone I had as a journalist and as a professor and an activist to suddenly being part of a team. It was a beautiful. There was like a great solidarity in that team in particular because it was such an insurgency. Nobody really expected Obama Obama running for the first time as a first term senator to give Hillary Clinton a real run for her money and we're behind thirty percentage points at different times in the race and suddenly at the time that that happened. We were the front runner. I'd had a book that had just come out. That had done well had just met somebody on the Obama campaign cast sunshine in and we just started dating and I had had largely dysfunctional romantic life before. Then so I was Man I was like fly so close to the sun I arrive in Dublin. Having had what I thought was a glowingly successful book tour stop in London. Bano texts me wants to meet for a drink you know. I'm not exactly hanging out with Bajo very often and I'm just like wow everything is going well and then possibly go. Yeah I mean I probably would because my I actually always had that sense of something could go wrong of some kind because my dad had died very suddenly when I was young as I write about in the book but so I never would think nothing can go wrong but I was just I was just on the top of my game. I felt and then suddenly an interview that I had given in London to the Scotsman. We're in saying what I thought was off the record but was incredibly stupid and ill considered to say in front of a reporter has vented about some negative ads that Hillary had taken out out on a a friend of mine suddenly it all came crashing down and Obama was amazing through this. I mean emailing calling checking checking in even as his campaign was going through a very rough patch. It was the first time that I had ever when the going tough and it was very tough to be a global scandal handle it. It seems kind of quaint now. Compared to the kind of scandals that exist seem a lot more severe today than this. What in retrospect seem so small But even if again a terrible mistake on my part but I never encountering any turbulence had opened myself up to rely on anybody buddy else and so here was my first time going through something of that magnitude but also my first time relying on someone in this case casts. who had just started the dating? And I was so demoralized and despondent and and and just the thought that I could either that Hillary could think that I could think about her or that I could hurt Brock Obama's campaign and I was you become so narcissistic also when something like this happens. I mean absolutely convinced I was GONNA cost. It's domination but it's in the headlines therefore it must be important indeed and and you know. Casts is a constitutional law scholar but also behavioral all scientists. And so he's giving me all this alleged consolation about this is just the spotlight effect You know this is when when you you are in the news you think that everybody else is thinking about you. I'm like cast. They are thinking about me. Look at the headlines in Pakistan like for crying out loud and so so you know in the end I think if I learned a lesson I probably learned one lesson to well which was to be more skittish around the press so even when I was. UN Ambassador I. I was in nearly as accessible as I might have been and I think. In retrospect if you look at one of the issues in our current politics like I don't think think we sold American foreign policy and how it mattered for the American people as well as we might have sold American foreign policy but not rooting it in the welfare of Americans. I'm not saying again that. Had I talked to the press more that don't trump would not be president by any means but but I do think there's a case for more grounding rounding of what we're doing again in local American circumstances and I could stand to have been more of a part of that I think in retrospect but the bigger lesson was more personal. Hello which was man. Life should happen and and you need people and to be vulnerable and to be taken care of as I was by this sky casts so I ended up marrying him. You know in this interregnum between when I had to resign the campaign and then when he got the nomination Obama got the nomination the nation I was able to go back. So that's sort of the best lesson of all. Is that the lesson that I described Multiple Times book of Lean on you know not just lean in lean on other people and open yourself self up because you never know what's GonNa hit you. This is I think kind of a lesson you apply to your role as US ambassador to the UN. You do make a point which does seem to come to us as quite a shock quite a lot of the other ambassadors of trying to go and meet all of them. I think it's only the North Koreans who refused to accept your invitation. I'm I'm always interested in this. The degree to which great decisions involving nations and continents and alliances get made on the basis of where the two or three people happened to get tone personally. Well or not have you found especially at the UN. That was the case. It's a there's a particularly interesting sequence in your book actually a recurring theme of your relationship shipped with Russia's ambassador to the late Vitaly Churkin with whom you obviously had many disagreements on the floor of the General Assembly and the Security Council but with him in person you got on very. Will you ask such a great question. And it's very hard to measure what building those relationships buys you transaction -ly for your our agenda but I did invest in going to meet with the ambassadors. I mean on one level. That wasn't that big a deal. It wasn't like I was going to their countries right. I was going to their missions ends. I didn't have to leave Manhattan. But it was one hundred ninety one meetings over the course of my time. More than fifty of the ambassadors missions that I visited none of of their predecessors or them had ever been visited by an American permanent representative before and so it definitely got their attention. You know that this was a way of showing respect and valuing their individual dignity and that they mattered even if they were from a poor country or a small country or an island country that you go to them and you listen to them and you take them seriously so on one level. They're still individuals within their systems. And it's not like I'm meeting with their heads of state but on another level I do think building those relationships showing respect means that they hear your message. I think by and large in a more sympathetic way that they hear the authenticity. Also of your commitment to the issues you care about because you're talking about what matters to you. In those again. Non Transactional settings played soccer with the Latin American ambassadors definitely tried to draw those relationships ships when it came time to tough votes. So what I'd say is on issues. Where a country's position was fixed which was a lot of issues relationships? Just aren't I'm going to be that big of a deal on the question of for example. LGBT rights which is a very very difficult issue for a lot of countries within the UN because seventy seventy plus countries criminalize being lgbt but those ambassadors a become not necessarily advocates rails ubt rights but they may become people who happen to have a dentist appointment during the vote or they may become people who are capable of taking an option that I give them for how they make the argument to their head of state namely a procedural argument will. Why would you take away benefits for same sex couples that the ban Ki Moon? The Secretary General has granted that would be a procedural infringement on Bunk Moons Authority as Secretary General so in other words. It's my job to give them an argument that they can use with a leader or or in a government that may be homophobic intrinsically but give them a procedural place to go and they may then take that and run with that because they sense that this really is about how dignity and equality and they are willing to hear me out that there's a way to get there that doesn't touch on the most sensitive issues in their country same on standing ending up to Russian aggression in Ukraine. You would have thought that that for any country within the UN would be a no brainer. Just vote in the General Assembly to preserve Crimea the as part of Ukraine on the maps and not to recognize Russia's illegal attempted annexation. But a lot of countries just wanted doc you know. They don't WanNa even if they they are the ones small countries especially have the most to gain by having the international rules of the road respected. They just don't want to confront a big power like Russia And don't like the thought of being on Putin's bad side who would and yet I felt like I got the most sympathetic hearing I could and manage to mobilize. I think through through these relationships largely more than one hundred votes which ensures that the maps no matter what Putin does on the ground will not change which again is mainly symbolic on one level. But it means is that Ukraine will retain this historical claim for a time where maybe someone like Putin isn't governing Russia. And so that's on those kinds of issues where they have discretion to make the case they've discretion to show up or not show up but on issues that cut to the core national interests or national interests. They understand them so. I don't want to exaggerate also. You can't transform the world because you play soccer. With the Latin American ambassadors thanks to Samantha Power for joining us on the big interviews. Samantha's terrific memoir. The education of an idealist is published by William Collins and out now for more from Samantha power including a longer discussion on US foreign policy and more stay tuned for a special upcoming makeup associate of the foreign desk. The big interview is produced and edited by Yolene. Goffin entre Thanks very much for listening.

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