Samantha Power has a wide range of accomplishments to show for her public life. She served as United States ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration. She is also a Pulitzer Prize winner, professor of global leadership and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and professor of practice in human rights at Harvard Law School.
Power’s new book, “The Education of an Idealist,” is a memoir that narrates the sometimes unmapped course of her life, starting from migrating to the U.S. from Ireland.
“I have made every decision in my life pretty impetuously. I think objectively, most of the decisions I’ve made at the time looked like flawed decisions,” Power says. “The big one that was made for me, which I described in the book, was coming to this country as an immigrant.”
Shortly after graduating from Yale University, Power moved to Bosnia during the Bosnian war. She became a war correspondent for publications including The Washington Post and The Economist.
“I was a stringer, which meant I didn’t have health insurance or anything but by the end, I was writing for The Washington Post, The Economist, and what would’ve been my dream publications.” Power says. “And yet I felt a kind of hollowness, like I was a bit of a voyeur going in to families and seeing what just happened to your child and not being able to do anything about it.”
Power left Bosnia to go to law school, but it wasn’t long before she dropped out to write a book that would put into perspective what she had seen in the Bosnian war. The book led her to work for a then first-term senator from Illinois.
“I wanted to put the Bosnia experience in context and look at American responses to the major genocides of the 20th century,” Power says. “Five years later, I finally finished what became a book called ‘A Problem from Hell.’ And then a first-term senator, Barack Obama, read the book and we got together. I tell that story in the book of how I ended up going and working for him.”
Power knows leaving home as an immigrant is not easy, and she acknowledges what coming to the U.S. represents in a chapter of “The Education of an Idealist” called “The Golden Door.” The title alludes to a line from the poem inscribed on the base of the Statue Of Liberty.
“The beautiful line that I take the chapter title from is ‘I will hold my torch beside the golden door,’” Power says. “The idea is that people who are coming to America are passing through this golden door to this land of promise. And I hope that’s the country that we become.”
Power recognizes that her experience as an immigrant from Ireland was easier than what immigrants are experiencing now, especially with the new regulations enacted by the Trump administration.
“I had it easy, I didn’t have to learn the language,” Power says. “There was no discrimination that I felt by virtue of being Irish, but it wasn’t that long ago where we were the ‘wops,’ the ‘without paper’ people. We and the Italians, and then it was the Jews, and now it’s Hispanics and Muslims getting denigrated in ways that are fundamentally un-American.”
Power says that new learning curves come with every position of responsibility, as she found out when she became the United Nations ambassador. Even President Obama had to be briefed on how to salute properly before his 2008 inauguration.
“The rest of us who were going in with him had to be briefed on the different levels of classification,” Power says. You do get, even at that level for him because he’s talking to foreign leaders, I don’t want to call it a tutorial, but an exposure to the logic of the system that you are, as he likes to say, ‘just a caretaker.’”
Power says that her time as United Nations ambassador gave her a better understanding of the role the United States has to play in the world.
“When I was U.N. ambassador, that was when Russia took over Crimea and then invaded Eastern Ukraine,” Power says. “My job was to defend international law, the inviolability of borders, and also to defend Ukraine … You need there to be not a global policeman – that’s not what the United States should be – but a police chief. Someone who’s going to say, ‘Hey, there’s a set of rules, you gotta play by the rules’ and mobilize a coalition to contest aggression.”
Power will be talking about her book at this weekend’s Texas Book Festival in Austin.
Written by Antonio Cueto.