Author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. But clearly, he never met Samantha Power.
Part jet-setting diplomat, part sneaker-clad advocate, the Harvard human-rights champion and scholar first shot to fame in 2003, when she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book on genocide, “A Problem from Hell.” Power [’99] switched gears when she left Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) to join the longshot 2008 presidential campaign of a U.S. senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. When he was elected president, she became a special assistant to him, serving first on the National Security Council, and later, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
More than eight years later, Power has returned to Harvard as the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at HKS and professor of practice at Harvard Law School.
Power figures prominently in a new HBO documentary that debuted Jan. 19 called “The Final Year.” The film chronicles the behind-the-scenes whirl of key players on Obama’s foreign policy team, including Secretary of State John Kerry and speechwriter Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, as all three crisscross a world that seems on fire. They organize historic presidential visits to Hiroshima and Laos, and they grapple with the conflict in Syria and the resultant refugee crisis, the Ebola epidemic, mass abductions by Boko Haram militants, and the Iran nuclear negotiations, against the looming backdrop of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Power will discuss U.S. foreign policy Thursday afternoon at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where she is also a 2017‒2018 fellow. (There is a waiting list for seating.) In advance of that session, she sat down with the Gazette to reflect on the ups and downs of her time in the U.S. government and how it feels to be off center stage politically, watching global affairs unfold.
Now that you’ve had a year to process it, how do you view your time in the Obama administration? What are you most proud of accomplishing, and are there any misgivings or disappointments?
Definitely, there were both, but my main “headline” on government is that nothing in my life has been as rewarding, as impactful, as purposeful as the eight years I got to spend working in the Obama administration. For me, a textbook case of U.S. leadership that was used to harness a global response to a cataclysmic crisis was the Ebola response. … I was privileged to be at the center of that because Barack Obama decided to deploy 3,000 troops and health workers into the eye of the storm at a time when people were so panicked across the United States. As U.N. ambassador, I got to take his commitment and then try to leverage it with other countries and build a global coalition. And we did that. We defied all of the odds, building the airplane as we were flying it, to vanquish that epidemic.
I feel sometimes when the United States talks about human rights or women’s rights, it can be very abstract. And so, with my team, about halfway through my time in New York at the U.N., we decided that we would focus on 20 women whose voices were being silenced because they had been made political prisoners in their own countries and that we would see what we could do to try to get these people out of jail. We ran this campaign called #FreeThe20 with women who’d been locked up in Ethiopia and Uzbekistan and China. Some of the people had even been locked up protesting sexual harassment — that was the case in China — at a time when the Chinese government was bragging about all it was doing to empower women.
And by virtue of our efforts, along with those of NGOs [non-government organizations], and members of Congress who got on board with this campaign, 16 out of the 20 women were, in the end, released from prison. … The only form of accountability that I and my team practiced was not “Did you give a great speech?” or “Are you respected around the world?” but was always about “Are there lives that are different concretely because of the work that we did?”
Syria stands out, of course, as the conflict that caused the most human suffering probably per square inch on planet Earth over the life of our time in government. But again, every tool in the toolbox, short of military force, we deployed. It’s just the complexity and brutality, frankly, of what was going on on the ground that made, for us, a solution elusive, it’s fair to say. And then, I also think if we had to do it again, I wish we had not gotten so entangled in the war in Yemen. Initially, to be defending our Saudi partners in the region made some sense — Iranian aggression, Iranian support for armed elements on the ground in Yemen — but then, as we backed the Saudi-led coalition, the amount of carnage inflicted from the air by the Saudi air force was so significant that I think there came a time where we should have pulled the plug on that. And I regret that we didn’t.
For someone known as a vocal champion of action, you worked in an administration frequently criticized for its perceived inaction on a host of global issues and conflicts. Has your view of what the U.S. can and cannot do to solve problems evolved since you transitioned from academia to governing?
For the book I did called “A Problem from Hell,” which led me to Obama … I did hundreds of interviews with U.S. officials. So I was no stranger to understanding that constraints exist. Constraints exist in terms of the effectiveness of U.S. tools, in terms of domestic public opinion or congressional support, and some problems are really hard in the world. That was no secret to me even though I hadn’t served in the executive [branch] before. I think, if anything, I come out more idealistic and more struck by just what the United States can do when it puts its mind to it. I understand and appreciate the criticisms on Syria because it was such a case of savagery and had a set of knock-on effects, as well, regarding terrorism and refugee flow. I understand that criticism.
But in general, there is a habit that has grown up over the years where if something bad is happening in the world, it must be the U.S.’ fault. Sometimes we have it within our power and we turn away, and that is blameworthy. But it is also the case that the United States, as we saw in Iraq, even when it deploys more than 100,000 troops in someone else’s country, is likely not going to be able to simply dictate events. … That is one reason I opposed the war in Iraq in the first place.
But I think if you look at the president’s activism on climate, on Ebola, on actually moving to a very different approach in Afghanistan and Iraq where we focus on counterterrorism with a much smaller presence but also emphasize the governance dimension to that, if you look at our Iran deal on nuclear weapons to try to avoid a war, or the Cuba normalization, this was a very activist administration.
And the contrast with the current administration could not be more stark, not only because the current administration is pulling out of so many essential international frameworks, whether on trade or climate or nuclear weapons, but because we don’t have diplomatic initiatives, it seems, as they relate to problems that are happening in the world. No one has any idea what we are trying to get done currently as it even relates to the Syria conflict. No one looks to the United States, already just within a year, to be the lead actor in engineering a response to the Rohingya crisis [in Myanmar]. So, everything is relative. Because of how Syria turned out, I very much understand the criticisms vis-à-vis that conflict. But if you look at the full litany of issues on which the United States was the driver of a response, there’s almost nothing that happened within the international system that the Obama administration wasn’t driving either frontally or from behind the scenes.
Is it difficult now to watch what is happening in the world from the sidelines? And how is the world changing since the U.S. has stepped back from its post-World War II role as a leader in world affairs?
Yes, of course it is painful to watch what’s happening, but not because I spent eight years of my life serving a different president and because we orchestrated these initiatives and now the initiatives are being taken away — not for that reason, but just because what is being done is dumb and dangerous. I’m a citizen, and I care passionately about our country. And this president is doing tremendous damage to our society, sowing divisions, waking up every morning and thinking “How do I pit one group of our society against another?” Attacking our democratic institutions, thereby ridding us of the voice that we’ve always been on behalf of democratic institutions in other countries, and the need for them. We have no credibility on those questions. The cruelty and the destructiveness of the approach being taken, for many, many citizens, is very unnerving and very upsetting.
And then, part of that is I’m watching an international order that the United States helped shape — not always perfectly, of course — but I’m watching that every day become one that now no longer has underpinning it the confidence that countries had that the United States would help maintain that order. Whether that’s because of the attacks on our allies, the withdrawal from international frameworks and treaties, or just the absence of initiative when it relates to contemporary problems, or even the defunding of really important international agencies, all of that sets up a situation where we have a leaderless world. But it also sets up a situation where China, which has a very different model in mind for what the international order should look like. … If you think you can just allow countries to do what they want within their borders, that’s a recipe for a very, very dangerous tomorrow.
China is relishing this moment of U.S. retreat. We see it in climate, where their companies are feeling now that they have a clean shot at dominating the renewables business. We see it at the U.N., where no longer is the United States mobilizing a coalition to block their efforts to avoid discussion of human rights situations within different countries. We see it on trade, where now that President Trump walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China is seeking to negotiate its own free-trade pact. So this administration, every day, serves up a new gift to a country that was already a major force in the international order and was going to be a major force ultimately anyway. But now we’re just surrendering the stage to them and hastening their domination of various dimensions of the international order.
What do you think of the jobs Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have done thus far?
I wouldn’t want the job of being a diplomat defending what Trump has done on a given day. I wouldn’t want the job of waking up every morning and seeing some new ally that we work with every day at the U.N. attacked with some tweet. I wouldn’t want the job of trying to stand up for human rights and democracy at the U.N. when my own president is attacking the media, judges, Hispanics, whoever it is on a given day. I think it’s very, very challenging.
On Tillerson, it’s very disappointing to see the absence of any articulated diplomatic agenda. John Kerry, you see in the film “The Final Year,” can barely carry himself up the stairs, he’s so exhausted from trying to tackle Yemen, the Paris agreement on climate, Syria, the Iran deal. For Tillerson, the only issue that we associate him with is his desire to cut the staff at the State Department.
This administration entered when we already had a situation where there were more individuals who served in Pentagon marching bands than serve as diplomats in our country. You can hardly say that the world suffers from too much diplomacy. And yet, for America’s diplomat-in-chief to make slashing the diplomatic corps his priority is bewildering and deeply problematic. Unfortunately, it makes the work that we do at Harvard and other institutes of higher learning more important because we’re going to have to recruit a whole new crop of young people to take up the mission of being America’s diplomats when we survey the wreckage and try to recover from it in the wake of this presidency.
In “The Final Year,” you said Syria was “beyond frustrating” and “haunting” in part because it was an issue “where my thoughts and feelings and ideas have made such a marginal impact on desperate people.” What else do you wish had been done?
We didn’t use military force against the Assad regime there. I think the critics would say that we had a responsibility to try everything, given the knock-on effects of the conflict. But I don’t think anybody within the administration who advocated that course, who wanted to use force, for instance, after the chemical weapons attack that Assad’s regime carried out, I don’t think any of us could speak with any dogmatism that, had we done that, that things would look so very different afterward.