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Ambassador Samantha Power: What Can One Person Do?

Samantha Power was named one of foreign policies top 100 Global Thinkers, and she’s twice been selected as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people from 2013 to 2017. She served as the 28th U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations as well. As a member of President Obama’s cabinet President, Obama has called her one of our foremost thinkers on foreign policy.

Question 1: 

You have been quoted saying that “My style in diplomacy is my style as a human being—I’m very direct and very honest,” – As a diplomat for 8 years- how important are those values? 

Well, I think it is striking the extent to which directness stands out. And as your question implies that can be a good thing and a bad thing. I think it was an adjustment for my colleagues at the UN, you know, I’m 1 of 193 countries and they’re very powerful countries. 

I think it is important for someone in the UN to not rely solely on talking points. Yes, talking points matter because you don’t get to make your own foreign policy. I worked as part of a team President Obama, of course had the final say on anything that I might be advocating at the UN on behalf of the United States. 

However, at the same time to recite talking points like a robot. You just aren’t going to convince anybody and so to not be bound by a script to try to internalise the purpose of the instructions that I might be given on a given day and then put it in human terms or find a story or an example or personal testimony from somebody out in the world and lead with that and then go pivot to what it is helped a lot with that. 

I do think it was a shock to the system. But you know, there’s just these traditions in diplomatic circles of a lot of throat clearing and your excellency etc. that by the time you get through the salutations, you’re halfway through your allotted time and you haven’t really made a lot of Headway getting at what a solution might look like. 

So I think when it comes to Human Rights advocacy specifically which was my sort of comparative advantage or at least my signature issue that’s just itself seen as undiplomatic when you raise the fate of let’s say political prisoners in someone else’s country or LGBT rights or issues that there’d be a lot of sensitivity around. There’s that kind of undiplomatic way of pursuing policy, but I actually think the bigger adjustment was just to use plain english and storytelling humor and normalcy.

Question 2: 

With that in mind, could you expand a little bit about your own personal values around human rights and LGBTQ+ issues? 

Well what it’s hard retrospectively, of course to know why one has certain instincts, but I do think coming from Ireland originally moving to America just when I was nine having maybe a sense of small countries and the dignity of small countries and the dignity of individuals who live within a country that ended up being very defining this idea of individual and national dignity. You might say I think that colored how I did my job as US ambassador.

The importance of not acting as though just because you’re a powerful country that somehow meant that your views were more valid or your perspective and the perspective of your people more valid. So I think that was a dimension of it being an immigrant also thinking about the idea of refuge and even though the circumstances by which I landed in America were very different than most people who come let’s say through a refugee program or who come seeking Asylum had nothing like that. 

The idea of being a welcoming country, a country that respected the rights of people who were fleeing far more difficult circumstances than my own I think having been granted the ability to come to America to hope that people for example fleeing the Syrian war or persecution because of sexual orientation that they had a place to go. 

And that was the face of America that we put forward to the world. I think that is also the reality in a more connected world. What I’m about to say is a bit controversial. It’s not universally embraced, but I do think that the old conception of US leadership or national security that views human rights as nice to have rather than need to have.

I think it is no longer terribly valid. I mean if you look at the growth of sectarianism or extremism, the kinds of things that give rise to terrorism or if you look at policy that ignores the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities, you can view those as just moral issues or issues of conscience and human rights. 

Question 3:

Listening to you. It sounds like the values drive it. When you’re trying to get that balance, are you led by the values? Or do you have to make concessions to get something to get from A to B so that you can work on the values after? 

Yeah, I mean it gets to this idea of sort of seeing the world as it is first and then pushing for the world as it ought to be. I say that because I self-identify as an idealist and people say how can you be an idealist after a decade working in American politics and public policy and being an idealist doesn’t mean that you sort of look around and see the world through rose-colored glasses. It’s pretty hard to do that these days.

When we look at climate change alone it would be hard to say we’re really killing it. I think it’s really important to get the lay of the land and understand all that is standing in the way of this kind of change that I believe we need. So to answer your question I do believe it is values driven but also it is a core belief of mine that both values and interests are intertwined. It is just hard to understand if it is so obvious to me why is it not to others? Could I be wrong? Could there be a case of sectoral blindness here? 

There’s a lot of money that goes into our electoral system by the fossil fuel industry. Could that be blinding public officials from doing what’s needed? Or could that be why they have not embraced climate science? So you have to get into the kind of grits and the muck and the ugliness of some of what might be getting in the way.

I think I know everything that I’ve been effective at in my life, which is not everything but that subset where I’ve been effective has derived from really digging into the facts of why people might not have the same perspective I have.

So it’s really empirical, rather than driven by the abstraction of values or interests if that makes sense.

Question 4:

When you try to balance the grit and the muck and the ugliness as you described it with your own personal self identified idealism and you take a look at the last four years in particular there’s been a very divided United States. Can you see a way to unpack that and do you see your idealism coming through and what will that take in the months and weeks ahead?

First of all, just at a personal level and this may be too much information, but I do find it quite easy to get overwhelmed these days and in the face of whether it’s bitter polarisation, a pandemic or the economic fallout from that, all of the suffering that’s insued,  the sort of insufficient response to climate change when we know full well that the clock is racing and and we’re just moving too slowly in the case of the United States. In many ways as well not at all at least at the national level and so that can be really demoralising and that can let’s say inspire one’s impulse to be part of a solution.

For example, racial injustice which has been surfaced so dramatically and heartbreakingly in the United States and elsewhere. And so the TMI part is one of the things that I’ve started doing these last few years since I left government.  At the end of every day with a very close friend of mine and former close colleague of mine we email each other the three things for which we are grateful for that have happened during the day.

Sometimes it’s something large like political transition in the country of Sudan or it could be something very tender that one of my children unexpectedly said to me, as I was struggling to home school them in this pandemic context. 

Just the act of going back over the day retrospectively, but also the next day, of course going through the day prospectively looking for bright spots looking for technicolor not letting the grays, the drab and the dark overwhelm your senses. 

I think that you can extend this way of thinking into the realm of geopolitics. We’re in a very difficult time in part because of the forces that you mention of polarisation and division, but there is a lot happening on the global stage where citizens and some leaders, are not getting the memo that the dark forces and the grey are going to overwhelm them and that they are contesting what is happening in their countries and in their societies. 

We’re at a time now where we’ve had 14 straight years of human rights in decline around the world, but we’re also in the second straight year of more protests than in any other two year period in recorded history.

So you see people really taking into their own hands some of these trends and deciding to do something about it themselves. I think you’ve seen that in much greater voter engagement as well as voter registrations around the world. The political participation of everyone particularly of women, but not only of women so that in a way is one of those bright spots.

I wish that more leaders and media would use the platforms they have to draw more attention to these examples of people improving their communities, of people taking matters into their own hands some of these people countervailing. The empirical trends that I think would be motivating and inspirational to people but unfortunately they don’t do that so I think it’s up to the rest of us to to remind ourselves as much as others about the bright spots happening as well. 

Question 5:

One thing I picked up from that you, people talk about gratitude journals but the thing from  that was innovative for me is the idea of sharing it with somebody else like a confidant Is it very important for anybody who’s trying to make sense of the world or who is going through a tough time to even just find one ally in that area of their lives?

I’ll confess the Gratitude Journal for me is more prosaic and that it’s because I’m a procrastinator so for me it holds me accountable. To make me do something that is good for me and that has been a huge gift in my life.

To your point though Colm, which I think is more profound. Yes, seeking out is important. Or the fact we must all bear in mind the fact that all of us have kind of multiple circles of identity. So I’m an immigrant and that’s a big part of my identity here in America but I am also a Catholic, a mother, a Red Sox fan in baseball, etc. And I also happen to be a Democrat. 

There are lots of people who would overlap with me in a number of those areas particularly in Boston. There are a lot of Catholic Red Sox fans, but they might be Republicans. I think it is just important that when we come out of this pandemic that we remember all of us as not just individuals but as communities and again using the platforms we have as leaders to think about how to create more opportunities for those other circles of identity to be rendered more salient than than our political identity.

I think social media has made that a lot harder partly because we’re just not out as much especially with the pandemic and with being more gadget bound but it’s also especially at least in the United States, political identity has crowded out other forms of association.

Question 6:

I’m going to Pivot just a little bit to the idea of the businesses and the managers and the and that some of the people that might be listening to looking for maybe a little bit of support, accountability and gratitude journaling and sharing of things that they’re grateful for in the midst of this overwhelming pandemic and how would you maybe recommend for managers or employers or leaders in some way to find those commonalities? How can people support one another during these times? Are there some tangible recommendations that you could make?

What I think myself that is the most important current thing to do as a leader during a crisis is to retain somehow and to be able to step into other people’s shoes. When I think about what it’d be like to for example lead a business now with the fear of meeting bottom lines and the fear of having to lay people off and the fear of not being able to recover from the blow that this pandemic has imposed on so many businesses. 

When we feel fear ourselves, whether as a leader, a client or as a citizen we tend to become more self-involved. And that’s totally normal as it’s a human reaction to focus on one’s own plight as a leader and as the person who is thoroughly accountable for keeping a business going for example. But at the same time a leader must also imagine the fear and the terror of one’s employees and of the email or the phone call they are expecting to get at any moment right about furloughs or about the future of the company.

I think it just can become so tempting to kind of centralise that information to manage the crisis to just a small circle, but if there’s any way to put oneself in the shoes of others it could really go a long way.

We’ve all had that experience never in a pandemic before but of being the person who’s not in the room, the person who’s waiting to find out what comes out of higher-level decision-making processes and we’ve all been that person who has received a decision and not been privy to the logic of the decision or the elements that went into the decision. 

I think Gina what I suppose I mean by this is a call for transparency, not only transparency about where one lands and where one ends up in terms of decision-making but the process that gives rise to decisions.  Keeping people, more in the loop than what is necessarily in accords with one’s instinct. That’s an affirmation of dignity where even if things end up in a really dark place there will be gratitude for the respect accorded to the individual worth of the employee.

More interaction and not less in a time of crisis is the hardest thing because time is so precious and bandwidth is so scarce, but it could be the most important thing. 

Question 7:

Finally Ambassador, you’ve talked about yourself as an idealist. We are in uncertain times. Are you still as much of an idealist as you always have been. Would you describe yourself right now as a hopeful person?

I think so. I mean partly I think hope is rational. So insofar as hope is fuel and there’s a great Israeli psychologist named Amos Tversky who once said “Don’t be a pessimist. What’s the point of being a pessimist? If you’re a pessimist you suffer twice.” Which is about the most pessimistic thing you can say because it assumes that everything that you’re pessimistic about will come to pass. 

However, just giving up I mean when it comes to some of the big issues we’ve talked about would be suicidal, right it would be giving up also in a way that would affect the lives of my children, their children and so forth. And so that means the issues that are defining our divisions today and it’s the divisions that are the most demoralizing but those issues are life and death issues as the pandemic has really brought home. 

And so to me that is very motivational. It’s just brought home how much more important the struggle for human rights is, how much more important the battle against such growing inequality is, how much more important that we not make pandemics for example more likely with rising temperatures because they’re going to become much more likely as viruses have warmer temperatures in which to to grow.

As we see, the ravaging effects of climate change which include again Public Health devastation that comes in the wake of extreme changes in climate. So that just brings me back to I know sort of wonky issues on one level but these are the challenges of our time and hope and a belief that you can make a difference, even if a small one in counteracting some of the negative changes and trends and in propelling some of the more positive ones which are very real as we’ve discussed.

 I think that’s what gets you out of bed in the morning, what keeps a spring in your step. And so they’re even from the standpoint of personal health and personal well-being. I think that looking at the reservoir of hope filling it up where you can with bright spots and then drawing on the reservoir when you need it at times of disappointment.

You must also keep an eye on that reservoir and make sure that you’ve always got some stock to draw from. I think it is really important and keeps you going. 

Question 8:

Final question, as an idealist and as that committed optimist, would you ever consider running for political office yourself?

If I would have anyway to serve I would consider for sure. I mean I have often been asked by my students, what’s the one piece of advice that you would offer for someone starting out on their career and I always say know something about something. 

So I do think at a time when expertise is in some quarters losing the power that we need to have because we need people to know what they’re doing to make really important decisions. I would want to make sure that anything I did was drawing on experience that I had and that I would be useful and impactful but also very informed.

So for most of my career I’ve been active in foreign policy, but I’d be absolutely if I felt I could serve and make a difference. I would do just about anything but right now, I’m also very focused on the United States and its leadership in the world and some of the issues that are there so that’s my area of focus for now.

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