Photograph: Official White House/Pete Souza
“I meet a lot of young people these days who say, ‘I want to change the world!’ And I have no idea what they’re talking about. There’s no such thing as changing the world. There’s no such thing. You have to choose your little piece of it.”
This was Samantha Power’s advice when she met with EXPLO Foreign Affairs students to discuss her journey from journalist to human rights leader just months after stepping away from her post as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for President Barack Obama.
“He who fights every war fights none,” she said. “If injustice everywhere gets under your skin, there’s just a risk that it can be paralyzing. It’s just too much — there’s too much terribleness out there.”
If anyone would know, it’s Power. During the course of her ambassadorship she had a front row seat to the Ebola crisis that threatened to decimate 1.4 million West Africans, the Syrian civil war and resulting refugee crisis, ISIL’s rise and reign of terror, the Russian invasion of Ukraine — not to mention an inherited war in Afghanistan and the battle against climate change.
The Path to Global Politics
A former journalist who was embedded in Bosnia during the Yugoslav Wars, Power had for years documented human suffering for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the New York Post. Still, despite her proximity, she harbored deep frustration that she wasn’t creating change or helping anybody. So she dug in. Power returned to the U.S. to attend Harvard Law, but her curiosity about America’s historical responses to mass atrocities couldn’t be quelled.
She took a year a off to pen A Problem from Hell and would go on to found the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. A first-term senator from Chicago asked her to help him better understand why America doesn’t factor human consequences into their decision-making enough. Power ended up working for then Senator Obama, helped him with his bestseller The Audacity of Hope, and would later go to work for the President as his Special Assistant for Human Rights before Obama appointed her Ambassador to the United Nations.
“I loved my job so much. Barack Obama believed in his core not only in the promise of the United Nations, but in its necessity. From a purely ruthless, pragmatic standpoint, he didn’t see a problem on the international stage that could be solved by the United States practicing alone."
"That’s what so exciting about diplomacy and advocacy", Power told the students. "The international system is at its best and most productive when it prioritizes collaboration and shared responsibility."
'That’s what so exciting about diplomacy and advocacy,' Power told the students. 'The international system is at its best and most productive when it prioritizes collaboration and shared responsibility.'
“There’s nothing like when you get the world growing in the same direction,” Power told her enraptured audience. “And there’s nothing like the gaps that exist in the international system when some countries aren’t playing ball.”
It’s what makes her so proud of the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis in 2014.
“Everybody else was leaving. Most African countries had put travel restrictions in place. And we went into the burning building. And we were empowered to say: ‘What are you doing, China? What are the smaller countries doing?’ And the country that stepped up more than any other country was Cuba, which sent 300 doctors. So instead of ending up with 1.4 million infections, we rendered the disease manageable and with our international partners we smothered it.”
When the System Doesn’t Work
That sense of shared responsibility is what’s missing in the response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Power said. The U.S. response at the end of the Obama Administration was too little, too late. It seems to be a sore spot for Power, whose work (no matter where her office is located) has always been guided by the human element. But disagreeing with the administration’s policy didn’t mean the work had to stop. There were alternate avenues to create change — smaller battles, as it were.
“Even when I didn’t love our policy, when I may have gone in a different direction, there was still a huge amount I could get done from my perch at the U.N.,” Power advised. “And my specific touch at the U.N. was that I made every effort — no matter what we were talking about — to bring actual human beings who were affected by conflicts and by contemporary events into the bloodstream of the U.N. And so I think there’s a way that you can bring your own personal stamp and approach while still following the instructions you’re given.”
. . . my specific touch at the U.N. was that I made every effort — no matter what we were talking about — to bring actual human beings who were affected by conflicts and by contemporary events into the bloodstream of the U.N. And so I think there’s a way that you can bring your own personal stamp and approach while still following the instructions you’re given.”
Get Close and Know Something
As a final bit of advice to students, Power urged them to go deep with their learning and really work to “know something about something.”
“There’s a temptation to really go wide in your learning and in your volunteering,” she said. “When I look back, the pivotal part of my life was when I went to Bosnia and learned the language, read the history. So it’s not transactional, that if I do these five things now they’ll serve me in 20 years. It’s by doing these five things now I really feel I know something. And I gain that confidence to learn more facts and skills.”
It was this bit of advice that resonated with 16-year-old Inez from Florida, the daughter of Cuban refugees whose goal is to work with the United Nations as a prosecutor in the International Criminal Court. Samantha Power is her icon and a role model, Inez said, and basked in the opportunity to hear her advice and ask her questions.
Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to go to Yale. And now that I’m here, actually adding Samantha Power to the mix and having all of these other experts that I get to talk to and ask questions of makes EXPLO and the Focus Programs stand out. There’s a lot more professionalism and formality, as well as resources at hand . . .
“I hadn’t considered that before. But now that she said it, it makes me want to focus. There are a lot of things that you can focus on beyond the overarching subject of political science or foreign policy. For instance, today we’re going to do a simulation on Venezuela. That also encompasses Latin American politics, which includes Central America, South America and the Caribbean. And that seems like something I would like to focus on because that’s a large part of my heritage and a large part of the reason why I’m here.”
The addition of experts and advisors like Power sets Foreign Affairs apart said Inez, who has attended a similar program in her home state.
“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to go to Yale. And now that I’m here, actually adding Samantha Power to the mix and having all of these other experts that I get to talk to and ask questions of makes EXPLO and the Focus Programs stand out. There’s a lot more professionalism and formality, as well as resources at hand and getting to part of the Yale campus. It’s almost hard to describe!”