In New Memoir, Samantha Power Describes Going From Idealist To Diplomat

Sep 12, 2019
Originally published on September 12, 2019 10:05 am

Samantha Power has been many things: an activist, a war correspondent, an author and a policymaker.

She served on President Obama's National Security Council, and later, she was his ambassador to the United Nations.

In her new memoir, The Education of an Idealist, she describes how she went from working outside the system – as a fierce and idealistic defender of human rights — to moving inside, as a diplomat who must, above all else, be ... diplomatic.


Interview Highlights

On her sense of danger and risk

I don't think I have a great appetite for risk. Especially as I've gotten older and with a family, I have even less of an appetite for risk. But I try to look at a situation and ask myself: By going, will I be more credible when I come back? Does it give me a kind of comparative advantage that I wouldn't have if I was just reading cables and news accounts of what's happening? And will I actually learn something that gives me an idea about how we can bridge differences in a negotiation?

On how it seems like America's approach to worldwide crises has changed

I think the fatigue with the use of military force and the perception that it rarely addresses the root causes of the crises that bring us there in the first place and that fatigue is entirely legitimate and maybe it's a healthy corrective to the kind of adventurism or maybe an overconfidence that existed for a long time. But if you then talk to people and say "How are we going to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?" It requires diplomacy and engagement and foreign policy. Just yelling at them and telling them to be different is not a substitute for the kind of years-long investment in building a coalition to isolate Iran and then to effectively take the nuclear weapons program away. That's a much more constructive path, precisely because Americans don't want war in the Middle East again and nor should they.

Victoria Whitley-Berry and Reena Advani produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What happens when an idealistic person must become a realist? Samantha Power has been many things - an activist, a war correspondent, an author, a policymaker. She served on President Obama's National Security Council, and later she was his ambassador to the United Nations. Samantha Power's new memoir is called "The Education Of An Idealist." In it, she describes how she went from working outside the system, a fierce and idealistic defender of human rights, to moving inside. And she told Noel King of a moment when she realized that winning a debate is not the most satisfying thing.

SAMANTHA POWER: I have a scene in the book where I'm UN ambassador and I'm confronting the Russian ambassador in the Security Council on live TV after the Russians tried to take over Crimea in Ukraine. And I thought - in this live, spontaneous back and forth with the Russian ambassador who was not telling the truth, I thought that I had got the upper hand. I thought that - I thought I kind of nailed it. And I came home and I roused my son, who was, I think, 7 at the time, and I dragged him out for a cheeseburger at 10 at night with dark circles under his eyes because my husband was away, and I wanted to tell him what I had done and how I had gotten the better of the Russian ambassador at this really important time.

And my son was eating his french fries and he had, like, a french fry in the air that he'd dipped into mayonnaise and it's hanging there limp and he says, so, Mommy, did they leave? And I said, what? He said, the Russians, did they leave Crimea? And I was like - oh - like, OK, it's true that getting the better of the Russian ambassador in the Security Council is actually not what I should be measuring. It's just so easy to lose sight of that and to have people - whether your mentors or your loved ones - keeping you honest is really important to keep an eye on that sense of usefulness.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: I mean, the interesting thing is, as I think it comes through in your book time and time again, is that people who get things done are people who take risks. And a lot of times, that means risks with your physical safety. And I'm just curious, what do you think it is about you that prompted you to say, I'm going to be a war correspondent in Sarajevo at a very dangerous time? I'm going to go ahead and I'm going to push for the role of U.S. Ambassador to the UN, which will require me to travel all over the world, including to dangerous places. Like, is your sense of danger less highly developed than other peoples' do you think?

POWER: I don't think so. I mean, I include in the book a letter that I wrote to my newborn son just before I went to Iraq while I was working at the White House. I was just going for a very short trip, but I tend to catastrophize, in fact, before I go to dangerous places. And perhaps because my dad died when I was young and he died, to me, very suddenly, I do actually always expect the worse. And so I wrote this letter, which is very painful to - and poignant to read now, especially now that my son is 10 and - but in writing it, I also imagined how many of those letters are written every day, you know, by our soldiers who are on maybe their 5th or 6th or 7th tours.

I don't think I have a great appetite for risk, especially as I've gotten older. And with a family, I have even less of an appetite for risk. But I try to look at a situation and ask myself, by going, will I be more credible when I come back? You know, does it give me something - a kind of comparative advantage that I wouldn't have if I was just reading cables and news accounts of what's happening? And will I actually learn something that gives me an idea, you know, about how we can bridge differences in a negotiation?

KING: For a long time, it seemed like it was America's place in the world to go in and fix things when horrific atrocities were being committed. At the very least, America was to consider playing a role, even if it didn't play a role. And it just - in 2019, it seems like that's changed. How does someone like you respond to this large percentage of Americans that say, we just don't want to do it anymore, and we elected a guy because he said we're not going to do this anymore - we're not going to get involved in conflicts that are not our business?

POWER: First, I think it's really important to be clear what the it is. You know, what is the it that we're not going to be doing? I think the fatigue with the use of military force and the perception that it rarely addresses the root causes of the crises that bring us there in the first place - and that fatigue is entirely legitimate and maybe it's a healthy corrective to the kind of adventurism or maybe an overconfidence that existed for a long time. But if you then talk to people and you say, well, wait, how are we going to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? It requires diplomacy and engagement and foreign policy. You know, just yelling at them and telling them to be different is not a substitute for, you know, the kind of years-long investment in building a coalition to isolate Iran and then to, effectively, take the nuclear weapons program away. That's a much more constructive path, I mean, precisely because Americans don't want war in the Middle East again and nor should they.

INSKEEP: Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who talked with Noel King. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.