Powers spoke about her recently released book, “The Education of an Idealist.”
Currently on tour around the nation promoting her new book “The Education of an Idealist,” former United States Ambassador to the United Nations and current Harvard professor Samantha Power spoke at Tulsa’s Congregation B’nai Emunah synagogue on Tuesday in an event hosted by Magic City Books. Power, who was born in Ireland before emigrating to America as a child, spoke candidly about the difficulties that come with being an immigrant, writing a memoir and raising two young children while trying to execute the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful nation.
Power broke onto the foreign policy stage in 2003 with her first book, “A Problem From Hell,” which chronicles the history of America’s role of lack thereof in genoicide prevention in the 20th century. This won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Already a professor at Harvard when the book was released, Power would go on to advise then-Senator Barack Obama on foreign policy in the Senate and on the eventually successful campaign trail.
From 2009 to 2013 Power served on President Obama’s National Security Council, and she was appointed to the Ambassador to the UN position in 2013. It was here that Power gained recognition for confronting Russia over its deplorable support of the Assad regime in Syria that has waged a war against its own people since 2011.
Power was joined onstage by OU-Tulsa President John Schumann, a college friend of Power’s, who features prominently in the early chapters of Power’s new book. Power began the talk by discussing why she decided to write a memoir now and how it differs from other works she’s written. She said she wanted to “write something accessible even if you didn’t like foreign policy” and that the subject of the book was ranged and included stories about “growing up in Irish pubs, baseball romance” and of course Putin. She also noted that she was a few minutes late to the stage having just written an op-ed for The New York Times on the House’s condemnation of the Armenian Genocide.
Schumann asked Power how she was able to use her position at the U.N. to fight for LGBTQ people facing oppression around the world. Power responded by stating that she viewed the U.N. Security Council condemnation of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, the first of its kind, as “a weapon to fight” the targeting of those in the LGBTQ around the world, even if it was “not a panacea for discrimination.”
Power spoke about women’s role in the Obama administration by saying that though there was a lack of women in lower level department positions, “when [Obama] was involved, the appointments were sensitive to gender equality.” On the topic of whether she was every ignored in White House meetings, Power claimed that she “can’t isolate gender as the reason she was isolated” and that it was likely her role as the human rights advisor that caused any lack of interest in her ideas.
One story Power told that really speaks to her willingness to break with established norms was about how she attempted to visit the office of every Ambassador to the United Nations when she first began the role. According to her, 50 percent of these countries had never been visited by the U.S. ambassador and that some would even prepare color guard ceremonies when they knew she was coming. She said it was “a reminder of what America represents for so many people.”
Power truly opened up about her struggles in a relatable way and was personable when discussing even the most mundane topics. Power gave birth to her son Declan in 2009 and her daughter Rían in 2012, both while she was serving on the NSC. She said that her “risk tolerance is far lower than before she had kids.” This coming from a woman who forged a letter to gain entrance into the fractured Yugoslavia during the 1990s in order to report on the Serbian-perpetrated human rights violations.
Only for a small portion of the event did talk venture into presidential politics, but when asked who her favorite candidate in the 2020 Democratic field was, Power had obviously thought quite a bit about the topic. She said she “would highlight Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden in 2020.” She referenced Warren’s work in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and her dedication to those in support of her. On behalf of the former Vice President, she told the story of how supportive he was to her during meetings in the Obama White House where the two of them often represented the outlying opinions in a “team of rivals” style decision making process.
Ambassador Power concluded her time speaking in Tulsa by stressing the importance of young people taking the foreign service exam and staying up to date with foreign policy. For such a generational voice on foreign policy with an unconventional focus on human rights, Power seemed adamant that she wouldn’t be joining any potential Democrat administration quickly. She seems more focused on activism and organizing right now, but one has to hope this will change if one of the two candidates she mentioned ends up as president. I suggest that anyone who has time to read Power’s book. Her life story is thrilling and inspiring, and the book is a testament to the good that can be done in the world when good intentions aren’t compromised in the face of adversity.