Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; William D. Zabel ’61 Professor of Practice in Human Rights, Harvard Law School; Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Author, The Education of an Idealist
National Security Correspondent, New York Times; Author, The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age
Samantha Power discusses her career in government, including her time at the United Nations and the National Security Council, and how it influenced her perspective on U.S. foreign policy and human rights.
SANGER: Good afternoon. I’m David Sanger, the national security correspondent for the New York Times. And it is my great pleasure to be here with a dear friend, Samantha Power, who has written a fabulous book which, if you haven’t read yet, run right out and read it. It’s great for all the reasons that we’ll be discussing here in a moment. But not only is the book so rich, but the moment now in American history, to sort of hear from Samantha on where the country was, where it is today, and where it could be in years going forward is just a great moment for all of us.
This is the Hurford Lecture, the John B. Hurford Annual Lecture, which features people who have represented critical new thinking in American foreign policy and international affairs. So it’s wonderful that Samantha has agreed to go do this. And I want to welcome Hilge Hurford and Jennifer Hurford and other friends of the Hurford family who are all here today. Thank you very much for sponsoring this, and we’re delighted to be here.
So Samantha and I are going to talk for twenty-five minutes or so and then we’re going to open this all up to all of you.
Samantha, this is not—well, first of all, welcome. (Laughter.)
POWER: Great to be here. Can we take note of the historic venue? So just because I have indulged myself and written about myself, my interview for my first-ever internship occurred in the Council on Foreign Relations library. I was shaking.
SANGER: Just out there.
POWER: Yeah. I was shaking in advance of this interview. And as we were discussing my fellowship with Senator Barack Obama that allowed me to get to know him before he ran for president, was sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. So this is just my latest chance to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for having me in all respects.
SANGER: Well, this is part foreign policy talk, part book talk, and part homecoming. (Laughter.) So it’s great.
This is an unusual Washington memoir because it’s deeply personal. And it’s not just deeply personal in terms of your family, but it has an immigration story. It’s got—
POWER: Well timed. (Laughs.)
SANGER: Well timed. It’s got stories of addiction, mostly alcohol addiction, that have plagued some members of your family, including your father, who passed away far too early because of it. It’s got romance.
POWER: Definitely not your average Washington story, yes.
SANGER: Yes, that is certainly not. (Laughter.) I didn’t even realize until I read this that there was romance in Washington, so this was—you know, this was really—this was really great. It’s got romance during a political campaign, actually, you and Cass.
POWER: Sometimes, by the way, when I—when I introduce the book I say, you know, this is an unusual book; it’s got baseball, romance, and Putin. (Laughter.) And then I’ll see people and I’m like, no, no, no, no, no—no, no, no, not romance and Putin. No, no, no, no. No. (Laughter.) Rest assured—
SANGER: Well, you mean it’s not romance with Putin. (Laughs.)
POWER: Exactly. But people—just one conjunction can get into some trouble. So yes.
SANGER: So let’s actually start at the beginning. So the years in Ireland, you spend a large amount of time in the Hartigan bar. Tell us a little bit about growing up in the Ireland time and your mother’s decision to bring you all here.
POWER: Yeah. So in Ireland we actually call them pubs, not bars.
SANGER: Yes, that’s right. (Laughter.)
POWER: But yeah, a good bit of my childhood was spent at this pub called Hartigan’s, which was not the cleanest of all pubs, perhaps, but it was my father’s staple. So he would go there pretty much every weekday and every weekend. I would spend those weekends with him at the pub reading my Enid Blyton mystery novels and my Nancy Drew downstairs. And you know, it was not, clearly, an ideal environment for a child. On the other hand, my father was always just a few steps away, and we were very close, and he was very loving and very present, notwithstanding where it was he was being present.
My mother was—had decided very late in life to go to medical school, late especially for that era, and very few women were going into medicine. There was—there were an awful lot of hurdles she had to clear. So she was doing her residency and her training. She was also an amazing athlete. She was playing at the top of the amateur, I guess then, squash circuit. She was really the best female player in Ireland. She had been captain of the Irish field hockey team. Small country, but still.
But I just had these two really hard-driving parents whose marriage began to crumble really largely because of I think a combination, really, of her work and drive and above all, of course, his drink. And so she decided in 1979 to bring my younger brother and me here to America with a man who for the last forty years has been my stepfather, but who I didn’t know at the time, Eddie Burke, also an Irish doctor, kidney doctor like my mother. And—
SANGER: Who you said later became your model of how to deal with people at the U.N.
POWER: Yeah, well, in some ways yes. I mean, Eddie—and my friend Lucas Haynes (sp) is here, who knows my parents so well. But Eddie is just this Irish storyteller, comic, you know, the whole joy of the story is in the telling, not even in the punchline; that has nothing to do with anything. I grew up hearing Irish fight songs, Irish poetry, the sort of last words of every Irish martyr before they were shot or sent to the gallows. (Laughter.)
But his main distinguishing feature as it relates to the U.N. is just he views to this day pretty much anyone he meets—he lives in New York City with my mother in Yonkers—as a kind of walking encyclopedia about that person’s country and history and so forth. So you can’t go with him to a Starbucks because he’ll hear some accent at the next table and go, you wouldn’t be from Uzbekistan, would you? (Laughter.) And then he’ll go off about the silks of Samarkand and the—you know. And he’s traveled much of the world. But I found that approach at the U.N.—you know, kind of not being snobbish and not following the more traditional patterns of sitting back as the host country and letting other countries come to you, but going forth and treating each country as if they—which they do, of course, have this rich texture of history and so forth. So I get that from Eddie.
But anyway, they ran away together, came to America. There was no divorce in Ireland. We came to Pittsburgh. My father stayed behind. It was amazing that the courts allowed my mother to come here.
SANGER: And that seemed to be a really close call. We nearly didn’t get a U.N. ambassador because of a—
SANGER: —because of a judge who wasn’t sure that he really wanted to let your mother take children out of Ireland.
POWER: Yeah. Yeah, the immortal words of the judge, which are the first words of the first chapter of this book, are: “What right has this woman to be so educated?” He said about my mother. And I describe the scene in the courtroom as if I was there, and I am so sure I was there, even though I was not there. But I have—because I have heard the story so many times in my childhood, as I say in the book, I feel I can smell the boiled ham and cabbage on the robes of this cretin. (Laughter.) But in fact, it went all the way to the Irish Supreme Court, this custody battle, and I don’t—really, it really speaks to how much my father was drinking by then, and he had let his career as a dentist kind of unravel. And so she made the case that, basically, he wasn’t fit to have custody of us. She also made a case that our stay would be temporary, which I think she also probably believed or needed to believe. I needed to believe it, I think, to leave my family and my—and my life there, as well, as a nine-year-old.
But we went to Pittsburgh, 1979. We are a family. Everybody remember, We Are Family? Pirates win the World Series. My way of fitting in is to learn everything I can about this new American sport called baseball. Steelers would win the Super Bowl as well that year, so it was sports, sports, sports. And that was kind of my currency and something I carried—carry with me, really, to this day, but carried with me believing that when it was clear I was not going to become a professional athlete, that I would become a sports journalist was my—that was my career ambition really deep into my college years.
SANGER: And you know, you’re actually remarkably honest in the book about many issues, relationships, anxieties, but not about how you moved from being a Pirates fan to being a Red Sox fan.
POWER: This is such a sore subject. (Laughter.) So—
SANGER: You really cover up—(inaudible).
SANGER: You know, I thought it was going to be all about Syria, but now you’re going to the—(laughter).
No, I feel very guilty about this. And my true baseball fan friends, like my friend Lucas (sp), you know, have been quite merciless to me over the years about this. Effectively, I had an American League slot in my heart vacant. That’s all I need. And so I—the harder thing is that my son is a Nationals fan, and not just any fan. He just—his entire—last night he was at a concert. He’s in a singing—he’s in his—the choir at his school. And I noticed him, just one of the songs where I knew he knew all the words because I had heard him singing—he’s ten—and I just notice him staring off into space, and it looked like he was having a moment with somebody. And I was like, who’s he looking at? And so he gets off the stage. I said, Dec, that was an amazing performance, but what happened in that last song? And he said, I don’t know what you mean. And I said, were you thinking about the Strasburg deal? (Laughter.) And he goes, did I stop singing? (Laughter.) So his mind literally—just in the middle of the song he started thinking about the fact that the Nationals were getting Strasburg back and he just—he stopped functioning. And that’s my level of sports fandom.
SANGER: I knew I liked this kid. (Laughter.) Right?
POWER: Yeah, yeah. He’s a—he’s a real Nats fan.
SANGER: And he had a better year than the Red Sox fans up here did, by a long shot.
POWER: That’s true. There aren’t many exactly here, though, David, just to take note of.
SANGER: Well, you and me and that would be—that may be about it.
POWER: Yeah. (Laughs.)
SANGER: And we’ll leave town quickly.
So you get to Yale. You go on this amazing summer trip that takes you out to places that show you conflicts or at least ethnic tensions in the breakup of the Soviet Union you’ve never sort of seen or thought about before.
POWER: Yeah. I mean, I think this was just one of those kind of Europe trips that I was just lucky enough to do at the right time. It was the summer of 1990, so the wall had just fallen. But it was before the collapse of the Soviet Union and Poland, Czechoslovakia—then Czechoslovakia—Hungary, they were all having their first elections. Just meeting people our age. We were just, you know, late teenagers, nineteen years old, me and my college boyfriend, and just seeing the exhilaration. It was really of a—of a moment, as everybody remembers.
SANGER: You see it in the picture in the book. The two of you look like you’re really having a great time.
POWER: Well—(laughs)—we are, but I don’t know, that may just be we’re just young and people looked that way. But it was the—they look different, it turns out, when they’re nineteen. But the—but it was—is more just, remember, the end of history, you know? It was—it was like history was going to be a winning proposition. It was just this inexorable flow toward progress. And even things that I write about in the book like the Tiananmen Square massacre and what would come, the wars in the former Yugoslavia, just seemed like these kind of pesky anachronism(s). You know, when are they going to get with the program? Don’t they—don’t they understand that liberal democracy is ascendant and is the winning model? I mean, just very different from what I see my students, your students as well, graduating into a totally different meme of fatalism rather than that kind of wrongheaded triumphalism. But that was part of what John (sp) and I—my boyfriend and I—experienced that summer, was just the sense of hope and possibility. I mean, it’s corny, but a sense that the U.N. could be this, you know, major force for good in the world, that laws would be enforced, that peace was possible. I mean, if the U.S. and Soviet Union were at peace, what else was there—(laughs)—was almost the attitude.
And so that was what was great for me, because I was not knowledgeable about foreign affairs at all, was it was more what I often need when I dig into something, is inspiration. And it was inspiring to see people taking politics and current events and the—and the future of their countries so seriously. And that’s really what I carried with me. But it didn’t make me any less of a—of a sports fan or any less convinced that being a sports journalist was where my future was, but it did make me a more serious student.
SANGER: Well, it also took you into some fascinating journalism, and you describe in your time after Yale this remarkable group of women who you had with you—there’s some photos of them as well—who are all out covering this amazing, tragic conflict that you end up, of course, documenting so well and a problem from hell.
POWER: Yeah, and some of the women are very well known who I wasn’t personally close to, like Marie Colvin, who actually didn’t spend a ton of time in Bosnia but did Kosovo, and of course would be killed in Syria; Christiane Amanpour, who was the kind of dean of the press corps, really somebody that I would have looked up to so much from—mainly from afar; Kate Adie; Maggie O’Kane; I mean, these trailblazing women.
But my closest friends were a pack of women sort of one generation younger who really went there as freelancers, very moved by what was happening in the heart of Europe fifty years after the Holocaust, moved by the rape camps and the sexual violence being perpetrated en masse. These women are still my closest friends. A couple of them I’m seeing later at Human Rights Watch. One is communications director. Another does sort of counterterrorism and human rights here in this country. Another friend from that period is at the ACLU. It’s interesting. I mean, it’s partly a reflection of journalism and how many journalists have gone on to do other things for other reasons. But in this case I think it says a lot also about the spirit of what motivated people to go to Bosnia. Some wanted to become journalists and war correspondents, and some kind of didn’t know what else to do but felt that they could figure out on the fly, you know, how to—how to report.
SANGER: I won’t ruin the rest of the family stories and the CFR scenes that you’re quite—are great and so forth, but you then end up working for this young senator who says to you, I have no power as the ninety-ninth senator, but this amazing platform because he was Barack Obama. And then you leave that job, interestingly enough. Tell us a little bit about what you learned about Obama and—this was your first government job ever, wasn’t it?
POWER: Yeah. And it wasn’t a real—I mean, with—I had a(n) international affairs fellowship, right, to work in his office, so it was kind of a job but there was somebody, as we were talking about earlier, who was Obama’s full-time foreign policy advisor. But I had the chance to go and—you know, it almost felt a little bit voyeuristic, almost to roleplay in government. And as I encourage the young people here, I mean, these fellowships are amazing because there are so many different places you can use them to test out whether you have a liking for public service or for different forms of foreign policy work. And it’s a wonderful feature, again, of CFR that they—that they fund these things.
So I decided to use—I had initially planned to do mine doing something else. But then once I met Obama I thought, this is perfect; I’ll just go and be in his Senate office. And I think there were a couple things that weren’t easy for me. I mean, that—in many ways I find all the transition moments in my life, when I look back on them—you know, other than, interestingly, the one of coming to America as a kid, where you’re so adaptable, and it’s America and everything’s so big and great, and I didn’t feel like I was giving anything up initially—but pretty much every other transition moment was hard. And they get harder as you get older, I find, rather than easier. But this transition moment was particularly hard.
I had—I do tell some stories about my romantic travails, and I had fallen madly in love with an Irishman, an Irish actor who dumped me right when I got to Washington. So that was part of why it was hard. Go figure, but now I have my revenge, although he’s unnamed in the book. (Laughter.)
SANGER: I hope you dropped him a copy in the mail. (Laughs.)
POWER: No, but somebody—one of the early reviews said, “Power seems credulous and naïve at times. She clearly goes out of her way not to name him, but a simple Google search”—(laughter)—because I’m, like, not that naïve. But anyway—(laughter)—but the—but that was hard just personally, and it actually threw me into—you know, certain relationships hit you in very raw places, and this one threw me actually into Al-Anon meetings that I went to with my best friend, John Prendergast. He’d drag me along. And those are meetings for dealing with—for confronting the issues associated with being in families of alcoholics, and I’d never really grappled—or self-identified in that way, sort of as part of a community of people who were living some of those effects. So that ended up just personally being quite a searing period of really digging much more deeply into my childhood.
But above all, my work life had always been this place of escape where there was always work to do. And I got into the Senate imagining that compared to being a journalist and being an academic and an activist, that this would be a place we would do things. But it ended up being the least functional, lest productive Congress since the “do-nothing” Congress of Truman’s time. And only when I was researching the book I went back and I began to do some more reading about the “do-nothing” Congress. The “do-nothing” Congress passed the Marshall Plan. (Laughter.) We did nothing.
And that’s one reason I think—I mean, I tell this story of meeting Barack Obama for the very first time. We had dinner. And me thinking, would I, you know, have the guts to propose to him that I come and work with him in the Senate, since no job actually existed that—you know, advocating for myself was not something—in that way, to put myself forward, I found awkward. And I was going back and forth. But I said, well, let me—before I humiliate myself, let me find out and make sure he’s not about to hightail it out of the Senate to go run for president. And he—at the dinner he’s like, no way; you know, how presumptuous would that be? I just got here. I’d have to start running, you know, in, like, two years after getting here. I mean—anyway, of course that’s exactly what he did—(laughter)—but he did so for the same reason that I, you know, wanting to just be useful and to spend my time as productively as I could—the Senate was Republican-controlled. There wasn’t—it was similar to now. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm to hold the Bush administration accountable in foreign policy, whether it was with regard to torture, Guantanamo, or the disastrous prosecution of the war in Iraq. Whatever it was, it was just an idle time. And it was my first time also working in an office, and office politics were new to me, and cliques, and who’s up and who’s down, and who’s a cool kid and who isn’t. All of it just—so I—like, you know you’re in trouble when your Al-Anon meeting is your preferred venue—(laughter)—rather than the Senate office.
But anyway, that was sort of my year. But when I left, in fairness, I also knew that he was—that Senator Obama was likely to throw his hat in the ring and I knew there be other opportunities.
SANGER: Right. And you go and campaign for him. The section on the—we won’t take time with it now, but the section on the Hillary “monster” thing is a chapter you’ve got to go read.
POWER: On why not to trust the press.
SANGER: Right. (Laughter.) But you’ve known that for years. I mean, right, so.
POWER: No, no, no. No, I’m teasing. That’s one about my mistake.
SANGER: (Laughs.) Yeah.
POWER: But I did, I think, overlearn, arguably, that—I mean, I do think I’m still quite skittish.
SANGER: It made you—
SANGER: I did notice you weren’t on the phone a whole lot in the first term, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
POWER: I’m not—I’m not a big, yeah, off-the-record person. Yeah.
SANGER: So let’s take you into the administration. So you get into the administration. You discover in your first meetings with the president, which were late because you thought the Oval Office was on the third floor of the White House and it turned out it’s on the ground floor, right, which is a wonderful scene in there. But you are trying to get this president to think as president in the idealistic terms that he had thought of frequently as senator, and you kept running into this fascinating resistance where he would come back and say, but we don’t have the leverage to do—how do we—how do we make this declaration and enforce it? And there was a moment in the book where you say, “Now, though, endowed with powers he had never had before, he seemed less inclined to believe the United States could get its way,” which seems to me to be the overall indictment of the Obama foreign policy—not that the ideals were wrong, but that he was too cautious in pushing out, putting the United States in places where the twenty-nine-year-old Samantha, when we first met, when you were writing the book, would have urged the United States to go.
POWER: You know, it’s complicated. I mean, in some ways that story—so that scene that you describe, where he—it ends up being an exchange. It’s my first time actually briefing him, and it is the same meeting where I got lost on the way to the Oval and go back to my office and Google “Oval Office West Wing map.” (Laughter.) And it turns out they have a map, but it’s not drawn to scale, and so I do end up on the wrong floor. So I’m late to brief the president of the United States for my first briefing.
But in that briefing he’s putting me on the spot to say, you know, OK, so I come out and I say such-and-such is unacceptable, that this—as it happens, the Sudanese president, Bashir, had just expelled thirteen humanitarian NGOs from Darfur, and so it’s an issue that many of us had campaigned on, that Obama had been very vocal on as a senator. But he was right. I mean, I’m not—he was saying, where’s China? Where are the Arab countries? Where are the African countries? And so—
SANGER: Saying where are countries to which you don’t have any control over.
POWER: No, yeah, but you—it’s called diplomacy, right? That’s where you have to hustle. But the idea—I mean, his point was, I’m up here, I’ve taken office—this was just early 2009—I’ve taken office at a time when the U.S. had hemorrhaged a fair amount of credibility and certainly vast resources in light of the war in Iraq, but not just that; the walkaway from so many multilateral institutions, the walkaway from international law at least as the world understood it. And so, you know, he’s like, let’s line up our leverage. And I think my—the story of my education is about learning how to do that in the real world, and learning how to hustle and how to build those coalitions, and how to go to him with a story of where, you know, we were going to be able to be part of a larger vise when it came to pressuring other countries to do the right thing.
So I don’t actually—I don’t see that at all as a story of excessive humility. I see it as a story of, OK, sister, Miss Human Rights Advisor, go tell me how we’re going to be as impactful as possible in doing what you’re proposing. And the I think more fuller story—I mean, again, that’s—knowing the limits to your leverage is an important part of leadership because in particular if your next step, again, is, OK, how do we now transcend these limits.
But I think the more important story is the—is the story I tell in a chapter called “Toolbox,” where he basically says, OK, Miss Author of a Problem from Hell and How We Need a Toolbox in Order to Prevent Mass Atrocities, tell me how we are going to apply those tools as early and as effectively as possible to prevent mass atrocities. Bring those ideas to me early. And with that we sent a hundred advisors, working with the Congress as it happened, to basically destroy the Lord’s Resistance Army. It wasn’t our officers doing the destruction, but it’s Joseph Kony doing horrific things to children—sexually enslaving girls, recruiting child soldiers. Lord’s Resistance Army, by the end of Obama’s term, effectively ceased to exist on the battlefield. Creating pathways for defectors, you know, tools that you wouldn’t even think about as being in the toolbox. Getting South Sudan, speaking of Sudan, birthed without a major mass atrocity, which is what everybody had expected. Small things that never probably even appeared in anything other than a tiny box in the New York Times like getting the incumbent president of the Ivory Coast to give up power because President Obama engaged him at the very beginning of a crisis instead of waiting, as usually happens in the U.S. government, for all the other—you know, you go ambassador to deputy assistant secretary to assistant secretary to deputy secretary to secretary, and then by the time you actually get to the president so much time has elapsed that the ability to actually defuse a crisis before it’s gotten very bloody is very limited.
And all this stuff on LGBT rights, where Obama’s like, look, this is a really hard issue. When they see a Westerner in sub-Saharan Africa talking about LGBT rights, you know, that’s just a perfect opportunity for somebody to demagogue that issue. Show me how we do this without Americanizing it, actually getting it into the lifeblood of the U.N. and into the DNA so it becomes part of international norms and not just American norms.
So I think knowing your limits, as long as that’s just a springboard to figuring out who you’re going to try to attract to join you, is not a sign of weakness, but it’s a sign of—it’s, again, a springboard for the next conversation.
SANGER: So this comes up again over the red line decision, where I remember sitting in John Kerry’s office the afternoon before the president—the Friday afternoon before that, and Kerry was basically laying out what they were going to announce tomorrow as they were doing the attacks. A good point: never brief reporters before you’ve done something the president calls off. And you are hearing the president describe his plan to go to Congress instead of going ahead with the attack, and you—
POWER: The next day.
SANGER: The next day.
POWER: I mean—I mean, I was where you were. I was mobilizing the coalition at the U.N.—
POWER: —in the same way that Kerry was because it was clear that Obama was planning to use force.
SANGER: In fact, he stepped out of our meeting to take a call from you in the midst of that, probably just a progress report on it. You—
POWER: It was not our most effective coalition building, by the way, which was a factor. I don’t—I don’t think it’s John Kerry’s fault or my fault, but you know, in the wake of the Iraq War, you know, when you take a show of hands as to who wants to join the United States using military force in the Middle East, two countries raised their hands—the United Kingdom and France—and one of those countries that Friday that Obama decided to go to Congress had to pull out of the coalition, with David Cameron showing the foresight for which he is now so—
SANGER: So famous. (Laughter.)
POWER: So famous.
SANGER: Well, actually, he decided—he decided, as I recall, to go to Parliament and lost, which was an early—
POWER: No, that’s—well, right.
SANGER: Yeah, right.
POWER: You would think that that would have been the biggest cautionary tale.
SANGER: And an early warning. And you—
POWER: But my point is he was—Obama was completely on track to use—I mean, it wasn’t—this revisionism that exists that Obama went to Congress in order to not to use force, this doesn’t—I mean, it—
SANGER: He wanted—he wanted Congress in. But you write, “Ever fiber in my being was alarmed by Obama’s proposed plan” because it actually calls for Congress to do something.
POWER: This was the problem with my experience—(laughter)—was that I had had two experiences, one working on the Hill—and that was several years before—but then I’d also just come—I was new in my job, three weeks or a month into my job at that point, and I had just come through Senate confirmation, and just nothing was on the level it felt. It felt like everything was—the only sort of algorithm—it was a preview of what we’re living today—was if Obama’s for it, you know, what is the—let’s just do the opposite. And so on that Monday—you were in Kerry’s office, it sounds like, on the Friday. On the Monday, so many Republicans calling Obama feckless because he hadn’t yet used force to the chemical weapons attack that had occurred several days before. As soon as Obama decides to—that we’re going to jump together so that we can do this the right way, and if it takes a while we’re not going to feel the War Powers clock ticking in our heads—
SANGER: They all get on the feckless train, yeah.
POWER: Well, they just—they just flip, I mean, just shamelessly. And so—but I mean, again, this doesn’t matter in the larger scheme. I think—I think your question about U.S. credibility and legitimacy and, you know, understanding our own—the limits in our own power and whether the red line moment, you know, undermined, I mean, there are plenty of really important questions there.
The only point I’m—I want to make is that we didn’t go to Congress to fail. I mean, nobody—especially because, remember, we had no idea that we’d even have a backup plan to dismantle the—
SANGER: Because you didn’t at the time, right.
POWER: We didn’t have a backup plan. So nobody goes to fail.
POWER: But we failed.
SANGER: So Donald Trump used this as a moment to talk about the loss of American credibility. And as he’s come in, he has been even more cautious, in odd ways, than Obama has been, although for different reasons. And so I just wanted to ask you to reflect a little bit about the moment we’re in now. As you think about—well, think of the scenes from last week at NATO, where the president was no longer regarded as either a fearsome force or even anything other than—I mean, they were laughing at him along the way for holding all these press conferences instead of going off and actually doing something. But does the combination of the way the Obama vision of the use of American power and the Trump vision of American power, while completely different in their own ways, what’s the overall sense you think that that is leaving our allies with now as you—as you look at the world today?
POWER: Yeah. I—
SANGER: And how do the—how does—how does your party reverse that?
POWER: Well, let me just say that I think that there’s a—you used the word “cautious” in the same sentence as Donald Trump, so I just want to come back to that. (Laughter.) No, because I think you did because in your mind you were thinking about military force.
POWER: But I just wanted to make that clear for people because I think therein madness lies. I think we conflate U.S. foreign policy—
SANGER: Absolutely. With the use of force.
POWER: —with the use of military force at our peril. And I think to the degree that people see any similarity or any continuity, they make that mistake in that they are conflating, you know, where we’re making war abroad with what we are doing to prosecute our interests in the world. They’re very, very different pieces of business.
So Donald Trump is the most incautious, reckless commander in chief that we have had at the helm, you know, I think in history, but ripping up agreements, turning his back of course on allies, abrogating so much of the standing and the trust on which our ability to ask other countries to come to our side turns. But one of the things that hasn’t, of course, changed between the two administrations is the overall view in the United States on the right and the left about whether or not the use of military force abroad is likely to be effective, is likely to be short-lived. In other words, so they’re both presiding over a country that has in it deep skepticism—
SANGER: Understandable after eighteen years of war.
POWER: Absolutely understandable after that time. But again, to think—I mean, that makes it all the more abhorrent that you gut the expertise that comprises your diplomatic corps. I mean, as your country tires of military force, as your country—and I’m not saying everybody, but you have, again, large—a significant chunk of the population expresses that skepticism—as China rises and you are no longer the top dog just getting to dictate your will, diplomacy becomes more, not less, important. You know, you don’t—you don’t do less diplomacy as your relative share of the global economy diminishes.
SANGER: And a last question before we open to all—to all. What I’ve been struck by in the campaign so far is you have not heard many of the Democratic candidates—I’m thinking of them collectively here—perhaps with the exception of Biden, who of course is the one with the most foreign policy experience, make this a central core of what they’re arguing, in part because they are conflating the military force element of it. Some have said they’d reenter the Paris Accord.
POWER: I think they’ve all said that, surely.
SANGER: I think they all have said that.
SANGER: Not all of them have said that they would reenter the Iran nuclear agreement, interestingly. Maybe—even then it would be under some conditions, which one would understand given—should this be a central part of the campaign for the Democrats? Or are they rightly reading the American public that this is not the way to fight back against Trump?
POWER: Look, I think from what I understand, from all of the polling and just now being a devourer of news from Iowa and New Hampshire and elsewhere, we’ve just never had a primary season where the number-one issue on just about every voter—would-be voters off their lips is electability, electability, electability. And so it is—I think it’s—since the end of the Cold War, you know, it has rarely been the case that electability questions have turned on your articulated vision for how America leads in the world or what—you know, just what your very specific policy prescriptions are.
That said, you know, I found it quite interesting the extent to which the idea of being isolated in the world or being laughed at is resonating. And again, as—because they all sort of agree there’s not a lot of differentiation among the candidates. So if you’re—I don’t—I think the debate askers need to be asking far more, in part to see if there are subtle differences among them. But they’ve sort of gotten away with a kind of homogeneity on a lot of these issues. I actually—I think I know who you mean on the Iran deal, but I think by and large, you know, the sort of default is we will inject human rights into our foreign policy again, we will rebuild our alliances, we will rebuild our diplomatic corps. You know, there’s a sort of, you know, meat and potatoes, you know, kind of core that was never particularly distinguishing because it was a bipartisan set of tenets. You could have never distinguished yourself on foreign policy by saying we believe in alliances—(laughs)—right? That wasn’t—that wasn’t exactly, like, a bumper-sticker means of differentiation.
SANGER: It is now. (Laughs.)
POWER: It is—no, I mean, I think the line separating at least the president—and the Republican Party is now the president’s party—and the Democratic Party are much, much starker than they’ve been in the past.
But I guess what I would say is I think there’s some interesting polling that actually shows that isolation, being hated, not being respected is more resonant as a kind of gestalt issue. I still think, though, it has to be tied—or it will be most effectively tied to bread-and-butter issues for voters. I mean, that’s fundamentally, you know, can you translate the fact that, you know, your standing has plummeted, that you feel like you have to sort of explain your president or the fact that our identity as a country is being altered away from being a county of immigrants and a place of refuge and a—and a place of diversity into something else, can you turn that into something that feels like it has resonance for voters? And I think it’ll be the next stage, again, when the pool narrows, when they’re really—people really will be looking for who has the most compelling argument to compete against Donald Trump. And you already see Biden with the video that he made last week believing that that’s going to be his source of differentiation at the next stage.
SANGER: I think that’s true.
Well, I’ve been having all the fun here, and Samantha and I could go on and do this forever, and we have before. But we’re going to get some questions out here. We’ll start with you, sir.
Q: David W. Rivkin, Debevoise & Plimpton. (Comes on mic.) David W. Rivkin, Debevoise & Plimpton.
Assume you are a senior official in the next administration. How do you rebuild American credibility with our allies? How do you win back the Middle East from Russia and Iran? How do you win back China—Asia from China? How do you convince them that this was an aberration and that the next president four years later might not simply revoke every deal that you negotiate during the next term?
POWER: Yeah, I think—I think your last question is the hardest. So if it’s only four years, you have all of the intrinsic harm of, you know, the much greater instability between Iran and Saudi Arabia, although maybe some backchannel things are finally happening there. The loss—most tragically, the lost four years on climate change and the setbacks here, where you even have the administration going up against the car industry in order to emit more even though the car industry was well on its way to lowering emissions standards, which is so crazy making. So all of that lost time you don’t get back.
But I think—I think it is that question of, OK, we’re glad you’re here, we’re glad you believe in alliances. We do understand that many, many, you know, tens of millions of Americans believe in alliances. But once this election has happened once, why couldn’t something akin to it happen again? And I think there’s not, you know, the margin of—nobody can be complacent about the 2020 election, but the margin of victory will be part of the story that is told. The fact that—and again, this is not the most compelling argument, but the question you pose is on one level unanswerable because it has happened and could happen again, by definition. But the—I think to point to the fact that the Republican Party—I mentioned earlier that it is Trump’s party; of course it is—but really the only areas of defiance in which the party stalwarts have challenged President Trump have been on foreign policy.
I mean, the budget that has come through both houses of Congress looks nothing like Donald Trump’s budget, nothing like it, not only on issues like the State Department budget—where Trump would have—would have completely gutted the Foreign Service even more than it has gutted—
SANGER: They also stopped him from lifting the sanctions on Russia.
POWER: I was going to say they stopped the sanctions on Russia. These—I think Trump won’t say it, but I think Trump felt that the Hong Kong Democracy Act he needed like a hole in the head. You can see that, by the way, on the basis of what just happened, which is a small issue but definitely something very personal to me. I, as U.N. ambassador, put for the very first time the North Korea human rights issue onto the agenda of the Security Council—not just like that because, of course, it’s something that China challenged, and so very hard to get the votes in order—even back in 2014, never mind today given China’s influence on developing countries, et cetera. But we succeeded, put it on the agenda, and it meant that the fact that Kim Jong-un is a weapon of mass destruction toward his own people—(laughs)—was center stage at the Security Council. It doesn’t change the world, but it meant a huge amount to people in—defectors who had made it out of North Korea, but also we gather from people listening on their shortwave radios the idea that the Security Council was finally taking seriously the gulags and so forth. But Trump yesterday pulled the plug on—it was actually the United States who took the issue off the agenda of the Security Council—the human rights issues in North Korea—which is so mind blowing to me.
But I mention that because things like the Magnitsky sanctions, you know, the—even on Yemen, and again, the Congress has blinked or the Republicans in Congress have blinked on this, but calling for the cutoff of U.S. assistance and sending that bill to Trump’s desk. So I think, you know, there are a number of issues in foreign policy where you can still sort of at least make the argument that there is a Republican core around a set of principles.
And where would we be on NATO if not for Republicans behind the scenes saying, don’t pull out? (Laughs.) I mean, we’re where we are, which is in a terrible place. But we could—you know, where would Trump be if really left to his own devices.
So I think it’s—you know, it’s, again, just—and they have no place to go. The other—the other way to make the argument is, OK, we get the future is uncertain in all kinds of ways. You want a Chinese world order? If not, let’s think about how democracies—pool our resources, show that we are delivering more at home so we’re not in a—and, for example, even as we think about the—renegotiating trade terms, how are we doing so in a manner that makes us less vulnerable in our own democracies to these kinds of populist autocratic figures.
SANGER: OK. And one right here.
Q: Hi. Wendy Luers from the Council on—for the Foundation for a Civil Society.
We just came back from the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution where there were hundreds of thousands of young Czechs demonstrating. There’s now a new president in Slovakia, Čaputová. There was the local elections in Hungary. Do you see a trend going in Central Europe now that is offering some hope? And, secondly, what do you think about expanding the EU?
POWER: Thank you, Wendy. Thanks for all your work over such a long period of time.
I guess, you know, I’d go outside of Europe as well. I mean, yes, I think you also saw in Finland yesterday—I don’t know enough yet about this—the youngest prime minister, I guess, in the world but also the whole Cabinet, I guess, is female, so there’s—between that and, you know, the Slovakian prime minister and her incredibly progressive pro-European integrationist agenda.
Orbán’s party suffered its largest defeat in more than a decade in the recent elections. I think Poland’s Law and Justice Party was expected to do far better than it did. In Canada the far right, I think, got no seats in the last election. Everybody was focused on Trudeau and how narrowly he sort of made it through. But there was another story, I think, in that election.
And then, you know, if you look at—I mentioned earlier President Bashir of Sudan. He’s in jail now in Sudan because people protested there. I mean, I would have thought it would have been—I mean, not having predicted the Arab Spring, you know, I think we’re not getting any better at sort of predicting where this unrest is really going to kick in.
But the fact that you now have a reformist prime minister where half the government has come from civil society where women were at the forefront of those protests, you know, I think what it comes down to is, and this is—this is relevant for this larger question of sort of the end of history and now the new meme of, like, the end of liberalism and, you know, this sort of dogmatism that has existed with and that gets going, you know, among social scientists and pundits and so forth, it’s a scrum, you know, and people—the idea that autocratic or authoritarian systems are going to do better at delivering on—let’s take the main issue on which democracies have fallen down in equality and the fact that so many people are being left behind by globalization, even though some are doing very well.
Do we really think that systems that concentrate power in a few hands that are less accountable, that have fewer checks and balances, that make judges retire at a certain age so they can stack the courts, as they’ve done in Poland or take over—or destroy the Central European University, as Orbán has done in Hungary? We think they’re—those centralized societies are going to deliver for people, you know, who have—who are not thriving in a more integrated economy? You know, it’s not going to happen.
So the question is for how long can you blame the immigrant. You know, when you stop having immigrants and it stops being the immigrants, I mean, and people can see with their own eyes not only their health insurance premiums going up in places like this country but also their flood insurance premiums going up as these people, you know, deny that climate change is, you know, altering the Earth or deny the human hand in climate change, and people start to have to pay the price for these policies that are not responsive to the needs of their people.
So I think you’re going to—but there’s no fixed trajectory, right. We wouldn’t—David and I would have having a different conversation about American foreign policy, you know, if our election had seventy-eight thousand votes—you know, well, we said a seventy-eight-thousand-vote margin, so if thirty-nine thousand votes had gone a different way. Seven percent of the people who voted for Obama in 2012 stayed home in 2016. You know, 2 (percent) or 3 percent or whatever it was voted for a third party. That’s millions of votes with a thirty-nine-thousand-vote swing. And so it’s in—in all of our countries, I think, the direction in which we are going is coming down to very narrow margins and a lot of it comes down, you know, less these days, unfortunately, with polarization, less to persuasion than to turnout and motivation and activation.
And that’s—David mentioned that I’ve written this book in a very personal way and a raw way. I wrote it—I would not have written this book this way if not for our current political situation in this country. But it really did feel like we were—we, in many circles, have been having a conversation among elites and that if there was any way I knew, and I don’t have many skills still but I can, you know, string sentences together, but to open up the world of public service and even the world of U.S. leadership in the world and to show and not tell through a personal story rather than, you know, something that was more kind of inside Washington, inside baseball. That was the small thing that I felt I could do. But we all need to open up this conversation, it feels like.
SANGER: You’re effective at that. And part of the effectiveness of it, I’d particularly say to people who are reading it to think about their own—young people for their own future careers, is it’s full of the anxieties that you have at the time. What did—you call them lungers, right?
POWER: Lungers, yes.
SANGER: You couldn’t breathe fully and so forth. Because none of these—none of this pathway is inevitable and it becomes clear in the book.
Let’s see. We have time for just a few more. Right back here. We’re going to get short questions and short answers because we only have about ten minutes left.
Q: Thank you. Hi. Mark Hannah, the Eurasia Group Foundation.
Samantha, there was just yesterday the Washington Post put out—released a bunch of documents—the Afghanistan Papers, they called it. Three years of FOIA requests led to the revelations that for the past eighteen years our national security establishment of many administrations have been lying to the American people and their elected representatives. You were smack dab in the middle of the Obama administration. Were you aware of any of this deception and, if not, what do you think the remedy is for kind of a runaway Defense Department here?
POWER: I was not aware. No. I mean, it seemed to me that there were—I mean, and I—you know, I have to dig in to the—to the articles and the documents, which I have not done. But in our administration, as David knows because he was—you know, was—
SANGER: I was extracting documents. Is that what you’re trying to say? (Laughter.)
POWER: He was extracting documents and leaks and other things from different people. I mean, my own impression was that the range of viewpoints within the administration were reflected in the press. I mean, that’s one of the reasons that Obama became, you know, kind of quite famous for his temper as it related to leaks and so forth, feeling that his decisions base, whether in favor of a withdrawal or in favor of sending more troops to Afghanistan, was being sort of altered by selective leaks.
So I’d have to—I’d have to look into it. But, I mean, the remedy is you have congressional hearings, you ask people to testify under oath, and people give their best judgment. I do think—you know, I’m married to a behavioral—constitutional law professor who became a behavioral scientist, Cass Sunstein.
You know, optimism bias is also a powerful, you know, feature of human nature and particularly—not to just throw all this behavioral jargon out there but the sunk cost fallacy— you know, once you’ve invested so much the temptation—we’ve seen it again and again—to dig in. And there’s—you know, alongside every dark update from Afghanistan there’s also a compelling update on how many girls have gone to school the previous month and, you know, how an irrigation system has worked that wouldn’t have come about if not for the courage, above all, of Afghans but backed by U.S. aid and, you know, the modest security provided by U.S.-backed Afghan forces.
So, you know, again, if you—I would—I think you’d have to know the full range of documents that came. I suspect that the ones that were leaked show one perspective that certainly was not reflected at the highest levels, I guess. But there are a lot of perspectives that would have been reflected in the paper trail, I suspect, if you looked at it.
SANGER: By the way, these weren’t leaks. These were FOIA requests that eventually the U.S. government had to—
POWER: I see, but the same—but—yeah. I see.
SANGER: —had to go turn out. But it’s interesting what you—what you mentioned because the number of girls who went—were going to school was the first metric that George W. Bush was using after the Afghan invasion as a sign of progress, change in the society, even Westernization. And when you go through some of these documents—and I haven’t read them all either—you know, you can pick your metrics here and—
POWER: Right. That’s kind of my point to Mark. Yeah.
SANGER: Yeah. Yeah. OK. Right back here. Yeah.
Q: Thanks, Samantha. Sherrie Westin, the Sesame Workshop.
(Comes on mic.) I just have—it’s a bit of a turn, but picking up on education. You know, given the huge number of displaced—I think it’s over seventy million today, almost half of whom are children—and the fact that that number is just going to keep growing, particularly with climate change, yet less than 3 percent of all humanitarian aid, as Samantha knows, is invested in education, so my question is, given—I mean, I sort of understand why because humanitarian response in itself is meant to be short-term immediate, saving lives. And, yet, the average length of time now for displacement is—I think the last figure was twenty-seven years, from UNHCR.
How critical do you think it is that we can get the powers that be to understand if we’re not investing in education in crisis settings and making that a critical part of humanitarian response—that I worry it’s just lost generations that can’t rebuild societies, given the numbers.
POWER: Completely. I mean, let me just commend—Sherrie runs the Sesame Workshop and they partnered with IRC and are bringing education to the camps in Jordan and in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, Turkey as well. Turkey also—
Q: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan.
POWER: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan. But just—and then, of course, bringing these characters, now creating programming through Sesame Street that actually depicts the life of a refugee. So bringing refugee stories also now to nonrefugees but making refugees able for the first time to talk about dignity, to see themselves in programming like that and it’s just so moving.
But I think, you know, what I experienced in government is just the fixed pie—the fixed size of the pie—and then, remember, you know, a decade ago—I don’t have the number off the top of my head but I think it was, roughly, fifty-seven million people displaced or something to that effect. So we’ve gone from fifty-seven million displaced to seventy million displaced.
We’ve seen modest increases in the size of the pie by virtue of different contributors now being on the scene, including China. Other contributors who we thought were going to be entering this conversation and becoming donors like Brazil, you know, are complete basket—economic basket cases and we’ll leave the politics out of it, but barely paying their U.N. dues, if you can believe it. I mean, we’re just less than a decade from discussing Brazil as a potential permanent member of the Security Council to them, you know, being weeks late and I think at one point even just being moribund on their own payments to the U.N.
But my point is just that it really is a discrete question of who’s contributing and then how is that money being spent, and where I started was my experience in the government is it’s just—talk about a Sophie’s choice, because you’re talking about food and shelter and medicine and education.
We are not maintaining our humanitarian funding levels now under Trump that we had. We’re way better than we would be if Trump had his way and if Lindsey Graham and Kay Granger and others, you know, hadn’t fought back, you know, against some of the cuts. I mean, Republicans—you know, of course, Democrats were fighting back to preserve the budget.
But, you know, it comes down to needing to make the pie bigger. It comes down to needing, notwithstanding the urgency of all those other needs, I think, to carve out more for education. But making the pie bigger requires having other kinds of stakeholders like what you’ve done, you know, bringing in the private sector and bringing in the philanthropic community and just having this be seen as something other than a governmental problem and maybe the education sector is a natural, I think, for that to be hived off.
But the last point I’d make, because we could, you know, quibble about what the right share—I mean, this is just—you know, we know that education is the predictor of what these individuals are going to contribute to their lives. It’s a predictor of how many children girls are going to have and then how many more people you’re going to be feeding, and so it’s so important.
But, you know, you offered the chronic displacement number, which is double what it was, you know, a decade and a half ago of how long people are now displaced, on average. We have got to invest in the diplomacy to bring these conflicts to an end and conflict is more—we are now at the height of conflict over the last thirty years.
We have more conflicts happening today. So it’s conflicts are not ending and then new ones are getting tacked on, and then that—again, the pie, no matter how sort of incrementally larger you’re able to make it or how big the share is for education, you know, fundamentally, we have to be dealing with a smaller problem set in order to be able to cater to these—to these young people, and gutting our diplomatic corps doesn’t help but nor do the stagnant investments in diplomacy being made by the United Kingdom, by European governments.
It’s not—you know, here we have our own particular problem, right, with the deep state—the attacks on the deep state and the hemorrhaging of our talent. But it’s not as if elsewhere there’s some great model in democracies of rendering the diplomatic corps fit for purpose for this moment to get at the real sort of buried problem in what you’re describing, which is the need to bring conflicts to an end that are much—that have many more parties as part of those conflicts than we’ve had. It used to be the U.S.-Soviet proxy this and that. Then it was conflicts—ethnic conflicts. Occasionally, you’d get a backer from outside like a neighbor. Now you—in some conflicts you’d have Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Russia. France pops up here and there. Lord knows what the U.S. is doing. I mean, look at Libya today. They’re like, you know, ten countries that are—that are—so bringing that conflict to heel is—if you’re, like, a U.N. mediator you need a table. Like, what is that—what is that size? You know, how do you even begin that?
SANGER: Samantha, because we’re just about out of time, this is a last thought here. As you watched your former colleagues from the State Department and the NSC and others testify, career people who you’d known in your time, there were a lot of people who were saying, look, if this is what the deep state looks like—
POWER: I’ll take it.
SANGER: Yeah. (Laughter.) Does that give you hope that the things that are dearest to you in this space are coming back in some way, no matter how the election turns out?
POWER: Well, I think it’s just like everything that is shrouded; you just don’t know from afar what’s actually happening behind the scenes and I think as inspiring now as—are these individuals of rigor and integrity who just told the truth, who, by the way, didn’t leak, right—didn’t go to the New York Times. Could have. Didn’t, right, and you could—
SANGER: We regret that. (Laughter.)
POWER: I understand that. No, and maybe there’s something. I mean, I think—I’ve, you know, talked to people who were angry about that, who feel, you know, why did they—why did they have to wait until this whistleblower heard, you know, and then he came forward and then the floodgates opened. There are fair questions there about chain of command.
But that speaks to the discipline also, and these are the people that I—I just spotted Jon Finer here, who was John Kerry’s chief of staff. I mean, these are the people we worked with, and sometimes—I write in the book about how maddening it could be. I’d be, like, come on, I want your ideas. I want your ideas. No, I don’t want you to go through so and so and so and so. You lived in the country. Like, your boss didn’t live in the—I’m really interested in—you were actually in Syria. You lived in Damascus until very—you know, and there is this training that makes them sort of go in order and to—it took time to get people to open up.
And I would say, you know, pretend you’re Obama. What would you do if you were Obama? They’d look at me like that was a crazy question. But that discipline, that patriotism, that loyalty to statute—I mean, look at these OMB guys, you know, who resigned without ever—I mean, we barely knew—you know, we barely—
SANGER: Knew they were there.
POWER: —to this day know their names. But I think what’s happened is by opening this up it has offered the greatest advertisement that the next administration, you know, could have for recruiting people into this family of patriots and to show also the range of backgrounds that people have.
I mean, that was my favorite part of all of the—it was just that biographical piece at the beginning where you just—it was just—and it wasn’t special. It was America. And so in addition to negating the assault on the integrity of the enterprise, it also negates this false picture of what America is as a country that isn’t a nation of immigrants and whose strength does not come from the richness of the diversity here.
SANGER: Well, Samantha, as you recall from your CFR days, the one thing we can both do to get thrown out of here is end events late. (Laughter.)
POWER: God forbid.
SANGER: So I thank you for—and thanking Dr. Power for all you did.
POWER: Thank you. (Applause.)