The Ir­ish- born aca­demic Sa­man­tha Power on how she be­came one of the most pow­er­ful women in Amer­i­can for­eign af­fairs

Sa­man­tha Power, the Ir­ish- born aca­demic and for­mer US am­bas­sador to the UN, talks to Suzanne Lynch about how she be­came one of the most pow­er­ful women in Amer­i­can for­eign af­fairs, her thoughts on the cur­rent pres­i­dent and how her roots re­main firmly in I

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

It is mid- af­ter­noon in Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, and Sa­man­tha Power is in re­flec­tive mode. Sit­ting in the mid- Oc­to­ber sun in the gar­dens of Har­vard’s Rad­cliffe In­sti­tute, the 47- year- old pro­fes­sor could be mis­taken for any of the stu­dents – wear­ing high- waisted jeans with her trade­mark auburn hair tied back in a pony­tail. The idyl­lic aca­demic set­ting seems a world away from the mi­lieu that Power re­cently left.

Nine months ago, the Ir­ish- born jour­nal­ist- turned- pol­i­cy­maker held one of the most pow­er­ful for­eign pol­icy posts in the world. As the United States’ am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, she rep­re­sented Amer­ica on the UN se­cu­rity coun­cil, a ten­ure that co­in­cided with an ar­ray of in­ter­na­tional chal­lenges, in­clud­ing the civil wars in Libya and Syria, the Ebola epi­demic and Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea.

Then, the un­think­able hap­pened. Like most mem­bers of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, Power was pro­pelled back into the real world when Don­ald Trump won the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. She re­turned to Har­vard, the in­sti­tu­tion where she was work- ing when she was poached by Pres­i­dent Obama. Nine months on, does she think the Trump pres­i­dency has been worse than his crit­ics had ex­pected?

She an­swers, with­out hes­i­ta­tion: “Yes. A lot worse.”

Born in 1970, Sa­man­tha Power spent her for­ma­tive years in Ire­land, at­tend­ing Mount Anville school in south Dublin. But in the tra­di­tion of many great Ir­ish writ­ers and thinkers, she spent most of her life in ex­ile. In 1979, her par­ents sep­a­rated and Sa­man­tha and her brother moved with her mother and her mother’s new part­ner to Pitts­burgh, be­fore set­tling in Atlanta, Ge­or­gia.

She be­gan to in­te­grate into Amer­i­can life, helped in part by her ap­ti­tude for bas­ket­ball. She kept in con­tact with her fa­ther, Jim Power, a den­tist and pi­anist. He died when Power was 13, an event that deeply af-

fected the young teenager. Through­out her teenage years she spent most sum­mers in Ire­land, ce­ment­ing a friend­ship with her cousins and re­la­tions that con­tin­ues un­til this day.

“In ef­fect I have three fam­i­lies: my fa­ther’s fam­ily, who are mainly in Wick­low, my mother’s fam­ily, and my step- fa­ther’s fam­ily,” she ex­plains. “I don’t have any ex­tended fam­ily here ex­cept the one I’m build­ing my­self – all my blood re­la­tions are in Ire­land.”

Power ex­celled aca­dem­i­cally, at­tend­ing Yale and later, Har­vard Law School. At the age of 22 she made a de­ci­sion that was to shape her fu­ture ca­reer, mov­ing to Bos­nia and Croa­tia to cover the Balkans War, from where she filed dis­patches for the Wash­ing­ton Post and the Economist, among other pub­li­ca­tions.

When she re­turned to the US and Har­vard, with the hor­rors of Bos­nia and Srebenica still fresh, she be­gan re­search­ing other cases of geno­cide in his­tory. The re­sult was A Prob­lem from Hell: Amer­ica and the Age of Geno­cide, a bril­liant, sear­ing book cat­a­logu­ing a his­tory of geno­cides from Ar­me­nia to Rwanda, and the will­ing­ness of the world to look away. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, cat­a­pult­ing Power to fame as some­thing of an aca­demic ac­tivist and a fierce voice for hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ven­tion­ism.

It was a book that was to catch the eye of a young se­na­tor called Barack Obama from Illi­nois. He was given the book by a mu­tual friend after his elec­tion to the se­nate in Novem­ber 2004. His of­fice con­tacted Power and said that Obama would like to meet Power the next time she was in Wash­ing­ton. “I quickly found a way to be i n DC,” she rec­ol­lects with a smile. “There was a dark­ness and a sad­ness at that time. Novem­ber 2004 was a very dark pe­riod. Ge­orge W Bush had in­vaded Iraq, had set up Guan­tanamo. Peo­ple had ex­pected that John Kerry would win, the first of many times we would get these elec­tions wrong. Obama was this bright light who had ap­peared at the con­ven­tion with John Kerry. He just burst onto the scene.”

The two met for din­ner in a steak­house in Wash­ing­ton for a meet­ing that went on deep into the night. By the end of the evening, Power had of­fered to work for him. When Obama be­came pres­i­dent, Power was ap­pointed to the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, and then United Na­tions am­bas­sador in 2013.

As her ca­reer con­tin­ued its up­ward tra­jec­tory, changes were also hap­pen­ing in her per­sonal life. She met her hus­band, Cass Sun­stein, while work­ing on the Obama cam­paign. An out­stand­ing le­gal scholar 16 years her se­nior, they mar­ried on July 4th, 2008, in Water­ville, Co Kerry. They have two chil­dren – De­clan, who is eight, and Rian, aged five. “They’re both poster chil­dren for an Aer Lin­gus ad – De­clan with his red hair, Rian with her dark hair and pale skin,” she smiles.

She has spo­ken be­fore about the chal­lenges of bal­anc­ing work and fam­ily life. During the first four years of the Obama pres­i­dency she and Sun­stein both worked for the White House. But in the sec­ond term, he re­turned to his Har­vard pro­fes­sor­ship. He com­muted be­tween Bos­ton and DC, though when Power moved to New York as UN am­bas­sador, the com­mute was eas­ier. As part of the UN job, she moved into the am­bas­sador’s res­i­dence on the 42nd floor of the Wal­dorf As­to­ria build­ing. How did they man­age?

“I had a very so­phis­ti­cated sci­en­tific for­mula, by the name of Maria,” she smiles, “an amaz­ing nanny.”

But she also worked to in­te­grate her chil­dren into her pro­fes­sional world, ex­plain­ing her work in terms they could un­der­stand. “De­clan was learn­ing to read during the time I was in New York. He loved the Mr Men se­ries at the time, so I used the char­ac­ters to ex­plain the job, the ge­og­ra­phy of the work. We named each of the am­bas­sadors after a char­ac­ter – you know, Mr Chat­ter­box, Mr Nosy, Mr Greedy . . .”

I can’t re­sist ask­ing: Who was Mr Greedy? “Rus­sia, of course,” she shoots back. “Be­cause of the takeover of Crimea. I mean, you didn’t have enough land, Se­ri­ously? That huge land­mass? It re­ally be­comes clear when you show a child Rus­sia on the map.

“In some ways, that’s the ul­ti­mate test of any pol­icy in any gov­ern­ment – if it doesn’t make sense to a six year old, chances are it doesn’t make sense over­all.”

But while her chil­dren helped her to fo­cus on the ul­ti­mate goal of her work as UN am­bas­sador, the anec­dotes also raise a more se­ri­ous point.

The Obama pres­i­dency was dogged by crit­i­cisms of its for­eign pol­icy, that the young pres­i­dent’s “pivot to Asia” had sac­ri­ficed en­gage­ment on other fronts, par­tic­u­larly in Syria, as the dev­as­tat­ing civil war in­ten­si­fied. In par­tic­u­lar, Obama’s de­ci­sion not to launch airstrikes after Syr­ian pres­i­dent Bashar al- As­sad used chem­i­cal weapons, de­spite the pres­i­dent’s as­ser­tion that this would be a ‘ red line’, con­tin­ues to be one of the ma­jor for­eign pol­icy lega­cies of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Power her­self also came in for criti-

Had Power’s ideals and for­eign pol­icy be­liefs hit the wall of re­alpoli­tik and crum­bled?


Sa­man­tha Power: “Obama was this bright light who had ap­peared at the con­ven­tion with John Kerry. He just burst onto the scene. PHO­TO­GRAPH: PAUL MORIGI/ GETTY IM­AGES

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