Samantha Power: ‘Trump? He’s just a hack, an actor, a performer’
The Irish born academic and former US ambassador to the UN on how she became one of the most powerful women in American foreign affairs, her thoughts on the current president and how her roots are firmly in Ireland
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-policy maker 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.
Nine months on, does she think the Trump presidency has been worse than his critics had expected?
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 working 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.
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 affected 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.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize, catapulting Power to fame as something of an academic activist
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 in 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?
We named each of the ambassadors after a character – you know, Mr Chatterbox, Mr Nosy, Mr Greedy
“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 criticism. Where was the fiery, crusading journalist, who had built a career and reputation on the need for intervention? Had Power’s ideals and foreign policy beliefs hit the wall of realpolitik and crumbled?
Power is sensitive to the criticisms. She points out that many who quote her first book have not read it.
Policymakers have 'a responsibility to open the tool box and see which tools we should deploy at reasonable cost'
“There’s nothing in that book that says after we got out of Vietnam and go and invade Cambodia because of the Khmer Rouge, for example. But do I think we should have intervened in Bosnia? Yes. Do I think we should have intervened in Kosovo, that we had done all the little things from expelling the ambassador, to radio jamming to reinforcing peacekeepers? Yes. Would that have been enough? Who knows, we’ll never know.”
Rather than proposing a policy of interventionism at all costs, she says she believes policymakers have “a responsibility to open the tool box and see which tools we should deploy at reasonable cost”. Engagement, rather than intervention, you might say.
She points to the case of Libya and Syria, two conflicts that arose during the Obama presidency and which elicited very different responses from the United States. “Libya is a place we intervened, but Libya today is not a pretty place,” she says. She notes there has also been a lot of revisionism about how much better the situation might have been if the United States had not intervened.
On Syria, she says the situation was more complex.
“On Syria – should we have done more? It is such a complex [situation] that I just don’t know if an outside power or powers would have stemmed the bleeding. I would have erred on the side of trying other things in Syria, but I very much understand why President Obama was unpersuaded.”
It’s one of several hints she makes about a divergence of views between herself and Obama, though she refuses to be drawn on any criticisms of her commander-in-chief. It is perhaps a theme that will be explored in the book she is currently writing.
It feels good to be there, this time without all the security detail
She also says that both herself and secretary of state John Kerry argued for “pushing the envelope in different ways” on Syria, though she says she can “say with no confidence that if some of the other things we considered, and ultimately didn’t pursue . . .that those things would have made things better for the Syrians.”
Ultimately, her time in power taught her that the president is constantly battling with a “huge bandwidth” of issues, she says. On foreign policy decisions in particular, “you have imperfect information and are doing the best you can on the basis of what you know – as Obama would often say, if the issue was easy and straightforward it wouldn’t come to him.”
Today, she is enjoying time with her family and reconnecting with her academic roots. She lives in Concord, Massachusetts, in a house built in 1763 by one of the American Revolutionaries – “true to my Irish revolutionary soul,” she smiles.
She visited Kerry this summer with Sunstein and the children. “It feels good to be there, this time without all the security detail. I remember, when I had just been confirmed as UN ambassador, I had just arrived in Kerry and there was a huge chemical attack in Syria. Obama called and I participated in the meeting from Waterville in a secure tent with wires, huge security detail,” she recalls.
She is due to visit Dublin in the coming weeks to deliver the TS Eliot lecture at the Abbey theatre – “a huge honour” – and plans to visit her old school, Mount Anville.
As for the current state of American politics, like many, she was left reeling by the election result in November. On election night she hosted all the UN female ambassadors at her residence in New York “so they could share finally in this glass ceiling coming down”. Unfortunately, it was not to be. She “failed to hold back tears after the election”, she admits. There was a sense of “gosh, if not now, then when . . .”
She says that, while working alone as a journalist and an academic, she tended not to ‘self-identify’ as a feminist, in recent times, this has changed. The lack of female representation became clear when she began working at the United Nations, particularly when she was the only woman on the 15-member UN Security Council. “I often watched school groups getting escorted into the viewing gallery . . . I wondered, what must the children think when they look down at this famous table and see only one woman.”
As for Donald Trump, her feelings are unambiguous.
“To have such power in the hands of somebody who seem[s] so uncurious about the world around him and so lacking in empathy . . .” she trails off. She says she believes his presidency is worse than many people expected. “People said during the campaign – he used to be a Democrat, he doesn’t really believe [in these things], he’s just a hack, an actor, a performer . . .but he is way more divisive and more of a purveyor of hate towards different groups and trying to pit different parts of American society against each other than I expected.”
As the mid-October sun moves down the sky and our interview wraps up, she does offer a glimmer of hope, however,
This is a democracy that has faced a lot of trials, she says, but she believes that America will get through it
“Despite everything, though, I think our institutions are proving more resilient,” she says, noting that the courts have pushed back against Trump’s Muslim ban, while members of Congress – even members of his own party – are questioning his links with Russia.
“This is a democracy that has faced a lot of trials,” she says, but she believes that America will get through it.
And with that, the red-headed Irish woman smiles, wraps up her books and papers and heads back into the Harvard seminar room, into the world that continues to mould her.