RICHMOND, Va. (March 25, 2018) – On Saturday in Richmond, Samantha Power’s professorial alter ego was on full display. After spending the afternoon addressing the 550 student delegates in attendance at the 21st annual Governor’s School Model United Nations and fielding difficult questions from some of the brightest up-and-coming minds of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina, Power shared with The Richmond Forum the lessons gained from her wide-ranging career as a war reporter, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Harvard lecturer, and the youngest-ever U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
In an address as personable as it was informative, Ambassador Power outlined the four points that will shape foreign policy: 1) the U.S. must be a leading force in global discussion; 2) the growing influence of China will become the “most transformative global phenomenon for generations to come;” 3) diplomacy is the cornerstone of the United States’ ability to promote its interests abroad; and 4) the foundation for positive U.S. foreign policy is dependent upon how strong we are at home.
Each of her experiences abroad, whether reporting in Bosnia in the 1990s as a burgeoning writer or negotiating terms with Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi before a historic visit from President Barack Obama in 2012, was a case study in world affairs. She told Richmond high school students in the Forum’s Student Room that she has learned so much more during her career by focusing in a specific area than by trying to do something broad like “solving world peace.”
“My bias is toward small and specific, and then learning what you need to know about broader things through almost like a case study or through like a Petri dish,” Power explained. “For me that was Bosnia, which sounds like a big thing, but learning Serbo-Croatian, and going there, it was quite narrow. I ended up learning about the U.N., ethnic conflict, war and peace, U.S.-Russia [relations], and domestic politics, through just one conflict and crisis.”
She learned on the job how to conduct herself on the world stage. It didn’t come naturally—many people questioned how such a “blunt and candid” appointee would perform as a U.S. Ambassador—but it came through practice.
“Like anything, it’s about listening and learning the lingua franca, what the currency is, and listening also to really understand what other countries need,” she replied in answer to an audience question about sharpening her diplomatic skills.
Any ambassador faces tough decisions, exhaustive negotiations, and the challenge of navigating sensitive interpersonal relationships among the world’s diplomats. But Ambassador Power faced another layer of difficulty during her tenure, as she was often the only woman in the room for U.N. Security Council meetings. She felt the pressure, she explained, of representing not only her country, but in some ways her gender as well.
Through the long hours and numerous setbacks of diplomacy at the U.N., Power and her foreign policy team remained positive: “My motto while I was working at the U.N. with my team was ‘There’s always something you can do.’”
In hindsight, she would have done some of those things differently. Power called placing faith in Aung San Suu Kyi “a mistake”; her childhood idol and Nobel Peace Prize laureate is now being held responsible for the persecution and genocide of the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar. In regards to the Yemeni Civil War, she believes that while their initial instinct to provide intelligence, support, and money was right that “as the war unfolded and we saw the tactics that the coalition that we were backing was employing, I think we should have pulled the plug.”
She addressed questions posed by the audience about today’s global political issues: the U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements, the Trump Administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and President Trump’s invitation to Kim Jung Un to participate in an official summit with the United States. To the latter, she said that the President is giving away a key element of his diplomatic toolbox.
“To agree to the summit, to give that up, there aren’t a vast array of carrots that the United States has or would be willing to give in the face of someone like Kim Jung Un,” who craves more than anything to go “mano a mano” with the United States, Power explained. “There’s a question of if the summit doesn’t go well, what’s left?”
Through it all, Power’s optimism, humor, and ability to articulate complex geopolitical issues shone through the evening. She switched with ease from joking about the challenges of balancing motherhood with the demands of a career in foreign service into multi-faceted discussions of humanitarian atrocities in Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar, showing her command of her field and the trademark communication style that have served her well. Power has the distinct mark of a social chameleon; she can adapt herself to whatever the moment requires.
Like any good teacher who poses more questions than provides answers, Power concluded her speech with a parting thought: “…as we think about how to lead abroad: What are each of us usually not, that these times require us to become? I thank The Richmond Forum for making conversations like this, about questions like that, possible.”
Written by Thomas Breeden for The Richmond Forum
March 25, 2018