Samantha Power: the world’s most powerful Irish person?
The Obama acolyte, Pulitzer winner and US ambassador to the UN says her Irish roots have stood to her when faced with challenging situations
Long journey: Samantha Power leaves the stage after speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington this month. Photographs: Doug Mills/New York Times
Earlier this week journalists gathered in a small room in Brussels to listen to a tall red-headed American diplomat talk about UN peacekeeping. Her message was clear: European governments must increase their defence spending and pool their resources with the US, to address international crises.
“The United States looks to Europe as a strong military partner in our efforts to address the range of threats we face today,” says Samantha Power, the US permanent representative to the United Nations and thus a senior spokeswoman for the world’s greatest military power and the backbone of Nato in Europe.
“It’s not the job of the United States, or any government, to tell European countries how to maintain peace and security, but it is essential that each of us does our fair share.”
The 44-year-old has been calling for US intervention to protect human rights and prevent genocide since the mid 1990s. In 2003 her historical analysis of genocide and US interventionism coalesced into the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
Power’s journey through journalism, academia, politics and diplomacy did not originate with some powerful American political dynasty but began in a Catholic convent school in south Dublin.
School in Dublin: ‘Disciplined, very tough’
Born in London in 1970 to Irish parents, Vera Delaney and Jim Power, she spent the first nine years of her life in Ballsbridge in Dublin. Power was sent to Mount Anville junior school in Goatstown, a place she describes as “extremely strong and very disciplined, very tough”.
“I loved every minute of it . . . except that I had to take ballet, and I despised it. I can remember coming up with an excuse to go to the toilet every time ballet class started and waiting outside for half an hour.”
After her parents separated she left Ireland with her mother and brother for a new life in Pittsburgh and, later, Atlanta. She stayed in contact with her father, who was from Athlone, until his death, when she was 14. “We were very, very close,” she says. “We stayed in touch via phone and letters.”
She says her Irish roots – and sense of humour – have stood to her when faced with challenging situations in the White House and at the United Nations. Often, when speaking in front of a crowd, she reflects on advice from her friend Colm Tóibín, the writer, that an Irish person must never be boring.
Although she values her heritage, Power recognises the opportunities she acquired by moving to the US. “I don’t know any other country where a little Mount Anville girl can be sitting in front of the [UN] placard, representing the United States. There’s a chance for self-remaking in a way that I think is really quite extraordinary.”
War in Bosnia: ‘It stirred my consciousness’
After graduating from Yale, in 1992, Power interned for a year at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, working alongside the former assistant secretary of state Morton Abramowitz. She says Abramowitz was consumed by the conflict unfolding in the Balkans.
“In the course of working for him I became much more familiar than I had been with what was happening in the former Yugoslavia,” she says. Her response was to pack her bags and head to Bosnia in the summer of 1993. Aged 22, the young freelancer drew on her skills as a college sports journalist to report on the atrocities unfolding before her. “For me it was the images of emaciated men behind barbed wire again in Europe; it was so chilling. It really stirred not just mine but many people in my generation’s consciousness.”
She says the two and a half years she spent in Bosnia was the foundation of her career, feeding her interest in foreign policy and conflict resolution.
Power’s empathy and sense of injustice brought her back to the US, where she enrolled at Harvard Law School and began writing about genocide. “It was just an effort to put the Bosnian experience in some historical context and understand better when the United States acted, when it didn’t, why it did, why it didn’t.”
A few years after A Problem from Hell was published Power received a call from the then relatively unknown senator Barack Obama. After one meeting with the future president Power arranged to join the young senator’s office. She says she thought it useful to work with a man who shared her ideas about the prevention of atrocities and about human-rights promotion. She never imagined he would run for the presidency within two years.
Resignation: ‘I was 100 per cent responsible’
While campaigning for Obama in 2008, Power became engaged to Cass Sunstein, a Harvard legal scholar. The two academics found the time to get married (in Waterville, Co Kerry) after Power resigned from the campaign, following an off-the-record interview with the Scotsman newspaper in which she called Obama’s primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, “a monster”.
Obama “was running this amazing campaign, and a clean campaign, and this kind of name-calling . . . was not how he rolls. I would have done anything to distance him from me, because I was 100 per cent responsible for what I had done. It seemed cleaner to step down, and after he won the nomination I went back.”
Power entered the Obama administration as special assistant to the president in charge of human rights and multilateral affairs on the National Security Council, in January 2009. She says being in the White House gave her a “perfect bird’s-eye view” of how US government worked. “I wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective in my job now if I didn’t understand how policy was made in Washington. ”
After being appointed to the UN, in August 2013, Power’s biggest worry, she says, was the million words she had written on genocide, all of which she would be held accountable for. Nineteen months on, she is far more preoccupied with the rise of Islamic State, developing a peace accord in eastern Ukraine and safeguarding the bond between the US and Israel.
US-Israel relations: ‘The partnership will not be broken’
Last week the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, addressed a joint session of Congress despite strong opposition from Obama and his fellow Democrats. Before Netanyahu took to the stage Power reassured the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that the US-Israel partnership “cannot and will not be tarnished or broken”.
Power insists that this “visible bump” in US-Israeli relations will not affect the deep structural ties between the US and Israel, adding that the substantive issue at hand is brokering a durable nuclear deal with Iran that would deny Iran a path to a nuclear weapon, a key aim of Obama’s foreign policy.
Meanwhile, she hopes to see a continued reduction in violence in eastern Ukraine following the fragile and semi-implemented Minsk peace accord, which calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line. “Those rebel groups in the east, they didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. They were conceived of, armed by, trained by Russia.”
She says Ukraine and Russia will face two potential paths in the coming weeks, “one in which there is an off-ramp where sanctions can get lifted, where some political reforms are made, but, according to Minsk, Ukraine reasserts control of its international borders. The other pathway is a pathway of continued isolation [of Russia], which is nobody’s preference but certainly is what one would right now have grounds to expect.”
Military force: ‘It has to be part of the equation’
The alarming rise of Islamic State brings Power back to her call for European support in UN peacekeeping and the potential need for military intervention.
“Military intervention is extremely risky,” she says. “It can’t be what we rely on. But when it comes to Boko Haram or Isil it has to be part of the equation, unfortunately, because those guys don’t want to negotiate.”
Turning to United Nations priorities, Power worries that some nations may develop compassion fatigue, given the increasing number of humanitarian emergencies, but her apprehension does not extend to Ireland.
“Even though it’s an island country it is the least insular island country I’ve ever been to, and I’ve always felt it had a foot in the outside world . . . You don’t need to work that hard with the Irish to trigger empathy.”
Work-life balance: ‘My job is all-consuming’
Power’s voice softens as the conversation turns to her children, five-year-old Declan and two-year-old Rían, who are waiting expectantly for their mother’s return to the ambassador’s penthouse residence, at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
“Declan is completely looped into what I do day to day, because my job is so all-consuming that, if I’m not playing with him with undivided attention, I feel I have to explain. I’ll say, ‘It’s Putin again,’ and then he will say, ‘Oh, well, if it’s Putin I get it.’ ”
David Donoghue, the Irish Permanent Representative to the UN, describes Power as having “a strong moral vision” and an “idealistic voice which reverberates in everything she does and says”.
Has time in the White House and at the UN changed this idealism? “It sounds weird,” Power says, “but I think I’m more idealistic now than I was when writing a column for Time magazine or teaching my students or writing my books. In the old days I had to hope somebody would read my book, and now I can go right to the big boss and make my case.
“I haven’t changed my objectives,” she adds. “I am exactly the same person. I’m just advocating within a very influential, large organisation.”