Samantha Power has had one of the most glittering careers in Democratic politics of the last two and a half decades but her idealism is far from tarnished by prolonged contact with real-life and unforeseen consequences.
Idealism, of the type we associate with youth and inexperience, rarely survives prolonged encounters with the world. But combine truly progressive aims with a tireless work ethic and sometimes you can simply outmaneuver the people and policies who are working against you.
Samatha Power found that out whilst working as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
When Russia tried to stop the U.N. from granting same-sex couples the same benefits as heterosexual couples there, to take one example, she and her mission worked hard to defeat them. And when they eventually succeeded she told them: “We won because we cared more and we worked harder. Never forget how much that can matter.”
This clear-eyed observation and many more like it can be found in her brilliantly written new memoir "The Education of an Idealist" (Dey Street, $29.99) which reflects deeply on her life in Ireland and the U.S., including her years as a war correspondent and the many tough lessons of her term at the U.N.
Long considered one of the most influential lights in the Democratic party, Power's resume is as impressive as her achievements. Born and raised in Castleknock in Ireland, Power's mother emigrated to Pittsburgh when she was nine.
A gifted student she studied at Yale University and later won a place at Harvard Law. Her first book, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2003.
Named by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful women in the world, Power was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017 and the former senior advisor to the Barack Obama presidential campaign. Currently, she is a Professor of Global Leadership and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
It's one of the most glittering careers in Democratic politics of the last two and a half decades and now at 49, Power has already had one of the most distinguished careers. But her political idealism is far from tarnished by prolonged contact with real-life and unforeseen consequences.
On the contrary, as a senior professor at the Harvard Kennedy School she is currently mentoring a generation of young leaders and activists who will, she confidently predicts, soon helps shape the future of American politics in ways that give her courage in these particularly challenging times.
Samantha Power Irish heritage and tradition
But has her own Irish heritage been a major factor in her passion for social justice, I ask her? “Being Irish made me, like all Irish people from a young age, look overseas, right?” Power tells the Irish Voice.
“A thing you do when you're from a small country. And back in those days, there was always, even before I knew we'd be emigrating, a notion of needing to know the world beyond the borders, often because there weren't enough jobs for you or your family say.
“But you asked about justice and I guess back then the best of the Irish humanitarian tradition was found through missionary work, through the best of the church. So growing up there was some sense of being part of a global community, of being connected to people, and doing unto others as you'd have done unto yourself. All of that was in the mix. But I don't have any visceral memory.
"I don't have a memory in a visceral way of the vulnerability or danger that I would have had in the North. I didn't really get that even though the Troubles were coming to Dublin from time to time and there were refugees and so forth.”
Currently on a national tour to promote her new book, Power, a mother of two, is committed to finding a balance between parenting and work. In conversation, it emerges that she is reconsidering the wisdom of bringing her eldest child on the book tour this week.
“All my previous books were when I was solo and I underestimated how terrible it would be,” she tells me. Fretting over consequences is a theme in the book and life.
In her book Power also talks about her struggles with anxiety, stemming from – she believes – the early death of her alcoholic father. She is candid about her difficulties conceiving and her four miscarriages, between the birth of her son and eventually her daughter. So the question she asks herself time and again in the book and also as a parent in these particularly fraught times is are we going to be alright?
Contrast the stability of the Obama years with the alarming instability of the current president fo example. What will help restore some sanity?
“The facts will pull us out,” she says. “We will have to deal with climate change eventually because the facts of climate change are inescapable and devastating. We will have to humanize our immigration policies again because we will look at the statistics and the data and know what immigrants are offering to our economy, and how deprived we would be without the richness of their varied contributions. I'm on a campus most of the time at the moment and my hope definitely comes from young people and their outreach and activism.”
It must have been hard to watch Trump deliberately target and undermine or reverse her work at the U.N. surely?
“A lot of people say, oh my God, it must be so hard to watch everything you've worked on get undone. I do get that question a lot. But actually the fact that I put a lot of time in is not the issue for me.”
“It's that we're not acting on climate change, or that we're making the middle east much more dangerous by unraveling the Iran nuclear deal or the steps we're taking in the Pacific on trade have just created an open field for China to build its own free trade arrangement, which over time it's going to be really uncomfortable for American jobs and free economy. So I guess I'm a bit more sort of present and future-focused. I mean this is not just bad for our country, this is bad for our world and we're screwing it up in ways that are going to be really hard to recover from.”
But we're at a stage now where the Kurds in northern Syria had to find out on, of all things, Twitter what Trump's abandonment policy was. “Yes, that was incredible. If there is an algorithm or formula by which the president's decision making works it would be, what does he think is good for Donald Trump?
“Then as a kind of residual, what did Obama do and how can do I do the opposite? But I think he underestimated the rage, even his own party. That creates an opening in our discourse more generally to challenge the president and to really question what he's done. I mean the damage caused by this move will be felt maybe even generations for now.”
Good Friday Agreement and Brexit
Asked about the Good Friday Agreement and how Brexit is affecting the spirit and letter of it Power is candid. “So much of the stability in the Republic and in the North and the economic benefits that have accrued there have come from taking down that border, and from people, goods, and services flowing freely within the wider European Union.
“The idea that all of that being put in jeopardy has been the most haunting dimension. Having said that, I'm also really struck by how important it is to have friends. A fact that somebody that Donald Trump would do well to bear that in mind because, fundamentally, the European Union has stood with the government of Ireland and has refused to make the main concessions that the Brexiteers have sought.
"And as a result of standing firm, the British government was moving much closer to the Irish position, rather than the European or Irish position shifting. There's a lesson in that for us all.”
* The Education of an Idealist (Dey Street, $29.99)