Samantha Power’s Advice For Feeling Like an Outsider
The former UN ambassador on being one of the only women in the room
Samantha Power’s taken on many roles: A journalist, an activist, a White House staffer, an author…the impressive list goes on and on. In her new memoir, The Education of an Idealist, she shares her experience of going from “being an activist on the outside” to working on the inside — most notably, as President Obama’s ambassador to the U.N. I talked to Samantha about her memoir and what concerns her about the current administration’s foreign policy.
Katie Couric: I’m writing my own memoir right now, so I really related to your comment that you “learned things you didn’t know” before you started the process. Can you tell us more about what you discovered about yourself that surprised you?
Samatha Power: For starters, I learned new, searing facts associated with my father’s death (in Ireland, from alcoholism, when I was 14 years old and had already been living in the U.S. for five years). Ever since he died, like many who suffer significant losses in childhood, I had avoided asking too many questions, for fear of causing pain to those who were close to him and broken-hearted. In writing my memoir, I finally asked questions I should have asked years ago. I didn’t love the answers, but I needed them.
Separately, in my career — spanning stints as a war correspondent, activist, professor, campaign aide, White House staffer, and diplomat — I had been getting “educated” as I went, subconsciously learning how to be more effective in getting the “system” to integrate concern for human consequences into its decision-making. But only through the act of writing The Education of an Idealist did I go back over my varied career and my personal life to identify and define those lessons. It was illuminating!
You have the unique perspective of having worked outside the system as an activist, as well as within it as a diplomat. What do you think each of those roles informed you about the other?
By being an activist on the outside, I learned how to frame my positions and my objectives in a manner that increased the odds that my audience would care. Having been a journalist, I also learned how to tell a compelling human story. I developed an eye for details that could bridge the distance between those suffering unspeakable trauma and people hearing my stories far away.
In government, as President Obama’s human rights advisor, I drew on these experiences advocating for human rights inside the bureaucracy. At the U.N. as U.S. ambassador, I often cast my talking points aside and simply relayed the experiences of people suffering the wounds of conflict, serving as an intermediary for their testimony, which was often an implicit indictment of some countries’ obstructionism.
You were surrounded by men on the security council, so it was really interesting to hear you say that “the salience of my American-ness was greater than the salience of my woman-ness.” Tell us about that dynamic…
The U.N. is one of the most male-dominated institutions in the world. Yet even though I was often the only woman in the room (and I would point out as much), I was self-aware enough to recognize that, as the representative of the most powerful country in the world, I wasn’t treated the same as women who came from smaller or less influential countries. I tried to use my perch to look out for and have the backs of my female colleagues, gathering with them as often as I could to brainstorm about what we could do together and how I could support them.
As someone with really intimate, firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to work inside the White House with the president, I’m curious about your perspective on the Trump administration and the approach it’s taking, particularly in terms of foreign policy. What would you say are you biggest concerns?
President Trump has isolated the United States in the world by demolishing our credibility, insulting our allies, and heaping affection and praise on some of the world’s most savage leaders. This has left our country far less secure than it was on January 19, 2017.
On credibility, Trump lies incessantly. Like the boy who cried wolf in the fable, the day may come when he tells the truth on an issue of vital security — and nobody will believe him. In addition, by ripping up international agreements to which the United States was party (e.g. the Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade, the Paris climate agreement, and the Iran nuclear deal), he has made clear to the world that “America’s word” means nothing, severely harming his own bargaining power in negotiating, as well as that of his successors.
In insulting stalwart allies like the United Kingdom and Germany, Trump has increased the political cost to those governments being seen to work with him. In showing affection for leaders like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (behind the murder of an American permanent resident and the devastating war in Yemen), North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un (behind the murder of an American student and in charge of a vast network of gulags), and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (who invaded Ukraine, helped lay waste to the Syrian city of Aleppo, and continues to brazenly interfere in our democracy), Trump signals that the President of the United States doesn’t care about — or even condones — these actions. Foreign actors who feel impunity will commit further harms that are antithetical to U.S. interests.
On another note, you’re so honest about the reality of juggling a really demanding job with raising a family and admit that “none of us feel adequate in doing it.” What kind of response have you received?
I’m overwhelmed by the response so far. Traveling around the country this last month, I have been approached by countless working moms who are engaged in the same struggle. We all feel we are falling down on the job, but when we hear about someone else who feels pulled in every direction, we feel less alone.
One of the “lessons” of the book is “never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.” Yet we do this all the time, thinking other people have it all figured out. By laying bare my struggles, I guess I’m making myself an example of the difference between one’s outsides and insides. I am very moved by how much this seems to be resonating.
How do you think your experience as a parent has shaped the way you view the world?
I always aspired to live by the Golden Rule. But being a parent has made me step even more into the shoes of others — to imagine what it would be like to be huddled in a basement during an aerial bombardment in Syria, unable to assure your child that she will get through the night, or to be in South Sudan hearing your son’s tummy growling with hunger and to be unable to feed him. To imagine that feeling of impotence — that inability to provide a sense of security to those you would give your life for — is extra motivating. Having kids has spurred me to work harder to do the painstaking diplomacy to resolve conflict and to try to mobilize humanitarian assistance for those who can temporarily no longer do what they want to do — tend for their own families.
What advice would you give to young women (or men!) who also consider themselves to be idealists and want to make a difference?
Know something about something. Don’t feel you have to solve every problem — to solve a slice of one. Choose something you care about and go deep, not wide.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared in the October 22, 2019 edition of Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.