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
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