It’s not everyday you get to spend a morning with a United Nations Ambassador in your home county. So I jumped at the opportunity to attend a Q&A session with Samantha Power at the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival in Waterville last month. In what was a major coup for the South Kerry festival, Samantha Power was the United States Ambassador to the UN from August 2013 to January 2017, and was interviewed in Waterville by an equally distinguished guest, journalist Carole Coleman, the RTE Washington Correspondent during the early part of the George W Bush administration.
Why write a travel blog about a UN Ambassador, you may ask? The UN is the international organisation tasked with facilitating & enforcing world order and without it travel (and everything else) would be impossible.
Dublin-born Power was nine years old when she and her mother emigrated to Pittsburgh in 1979. The Ireland she left behind was a socially different country to now, one that couldn’t have imagined a government lead by a gay mixed-race Taoiseach, but, despite societal changes, acknowledged that her native land still retains a strong humanitarian tradition. Her participation in sport helped her to integrate in the US. Following a liberal arts degree, she taught English in post-communist Berlin. Her subsequent internship with Mort Abramowitz in Washington spurred an interest in the Yugoslav conflict, a conflict she spent several years reporting on for the US News & World Report. She followed this experience by penning a Pulitzer Prize–winning book on genocide. Despite criticising US policy in the book she said it had a wide readership including a young Senator Barack Obama. She subsequently played a key role in the Obama administration until her appointment by him to the UN in 2013 and it was the latter role she elaborated on in Waterville.
Her first few days as UN Ambassador coincided with both her holiday in Waterville and the chemical attack by Assad’s forces near Damascus. Power said that the Syrian war has been the most difficult issue for the US during her tenure at the UN and said that the UN Security Council is rarely effective when one of the members is invested in an issue. She described her relationship with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, as complex but readily acknowledged his ability as an excellent diplomat and effective conduit between Vladimir Putin and the US. Despite criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea she is optimistic about future relations between the US and Russia.
She described the Israel/Palestine issue as a “very very sad situation” not helped by the fact that Trump is not committed to a two-state solution. South Sudan was identified as a place where great outrages are taking place. Regarding North Korea, she stated that China has leverage and that the international community’s strategy should entail diplomacy and enforcement, not tweeting. She predicts China will assert itself on the world stage and become a major power.
She is a strong advocate of diplomacy saying “the essence of diplomacy is investing in multilateral relationships and solutions”. She feels Donald Trump has contempt for the idea of investing in diplomatic relationships, wanting no part in humanitarian assistance, thus leaving Angela Merkel to take up the political mantle. Such is Power’s commitment to diplomacy she met with every country’s UN Ambassador in their offices thus allowing these representatives the dignity they deserve in the international community. Power acknowledged the drawbacks of UN diplomacy where ambassadors do not report directly to their Prime Ministers. Given her direct communication with President Obama, Power was provided with a security team.
She spoke positively about current UN Secretary General António Guterres and former US UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke but she reserved the highest praise for former Secretary of State John Kerry saying that it was “pretty crushing” to see him beaten by George W Bush in the 2004 presidential election.
When asked by an audience member, she stated her two biggest fears for the world revolve around Donald Trump. Firstly, Trump’s self-inflicted crises are a worry but more so would be his reaction to a large-scale terrorist attack on US soil. Her second concern is the way in which Trump negatively influences people, particularly the young, and his contempt for basic human norms and decency, a concern I’ve held since Trump’s election victory. She mentioned the criticism George W Bush’s policies attracted but his personal decency and decorum was never an issue. She says the propaganda of Fox News is responsible for Trump’s ascendancy calling it an “alternative factual universe”. The litmus test for Trump is the November 2018 mid-term elections. On a positive note, she sees an increase in political engagement, particularly amongst young women, as a reaction to the Trump administration. Power would consider running for public office and, given what I and the audience in Waterville witnessed, US politics and the international community would be well-served by the skills and experience she has to offer. Perhaps we were in the company of a future Secretary of State?
To end, I would like to thank the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival Team, the people of beautiful Waterville, Carole Coleman, The Sea Lodge Hotel and to videographer/photographer Christy Riordan. Finally, thanks to Samantha Power for interrupting her family holiday to give the public a rare insight into the complexities of world politics and diplomacy.
© Hazel Joy 2017