Samantha Power: ‘Being at the UN is like trying to get heard at an Irish dinner table’

The former US ambassador and Obama adviser on life after the Oval Office, Hillary’s ‘victory party’, and her role in new documentary The Final Year

Samantha Power, 47, was a special adviser to President Obama on foreign affairs and human rights before becoming US ambassador to the UN in 2013. Prior to her frontline involvement in politics she had been a war reporter, Pulitzer prize-winning author, and professor of global leadership and foreign policy at Harvard. She has a lead role in The Final Year, a forthcoming fly-on-the-wall film documentary about the last 12 months of Obama’s administration.

It was quite emotional for me as an outsider to watch The Final Year – I can’t imagine how it must feel for you. When did you first get to see it?
I saw versions of it as early as last spring. But then, I was more looking at it with an eye to “Oh my God, I look so tired.” It wasn’t until I saw it with an audience for the first time in Toronto that I really watched it. I was pleased that the film was not being taken as a movie about diplomacy, but about wider questions. It is about people trying to make the world a little better and not always succeeding and getting up and trying again.

You were a very tight team in the Oval Office, it seems. Are you all still close?
People are off finding their paths. Some colleagues have decided that their path is to go back where they went to high school and run for office from there. For myself, I am working on a memoir that is targeted at young people. That involves being a bit removed from what I would like to still be working on, which is solving problems in the here and now.

How do you go about replacing the intensity?
It’s a bit like being a professional athlete who retires: you have to find meaning in the next phase. But I guess for me it has been like being an athlete who retires and finds the sport itself no longer exists. It is not like I am quibbling with the direction of the diplomacy of this administration. They are not doing any diplomacy.

You are often cast as the conscience of Obama’s foreign policy – was that a role you wanted?
I couldn’t become un-blunt. If I wanted credibility in a meeting, I would go to a place first and talk to dozens of people, just like I did when I had a reporter’s notebook. But was I the conscience? Barack Obama has his own conscience. He wanted someone who could speak to that part of him, a very large part of him.

Watch a trailer for The Final Year.

The film dwells a little on you trying to juggle your role with the pressure of having young children. How hard was that?
My husband and I had both of our kids while I worked at the White House. Like for anyone, they kept me honest. They helped me not to take myself too seriously, but always try to take the enterprise seriously.

In the film, you cry at a citizenship ceremony when you recalled your own arrival in the States from Ireland at the age of nine. Can you remember what that felt like?
For my book, I found some letters I sent to my grandfather. I had a lengthy correspondence with him – he died in Ireland at 101. But they say, you know, “I got a new watch last week. If you hit the left button, the face lights up blue. Love, Samantha.” Still, there is no doubt I loved America, and I felt there was something in the water: that if you could dream it then you had a chance of being able to do it. I never felt held back by being an immigrant. Everyone was an immigrant or the son or daughter of an immigrant.

Your mother, who brought you and your brother over on her own, must have been an inspiration…
Big time. As you get older you look back and think: what would it have been like for her to do that in her 30s? She had to redo a lot of her training as a doctor, start over. Among other things, she taught me the value of being a storyteller. Being at the UN was a bit like trying to get heard at an Irish dinner table. You had to have a story to tell.

In the film, 2016 election night has never looked more shocking than at the party you organised to welcome Hillary as the first female president. It must be tough to watch that now…
Almost everyone who sees it has some version of that experience. But it’s true not everyone was so dumb as to invite the 37 women ambassadors to the UN and Gloria Steinem to their party along with a documentary film crew…

‘Are you incapable of shame?’: Samantha Power criticises Syria, Iran and Russia over Aleppo

How long did it take you to recover?
It was tricky, because I remained in position until 20 January. I had to get things done, a list of political prisoners to try to get out of jail and so on. It was all complicated by the fact that the incoming administration wanted to conduct its own foreign policy while we were still conducting ours. A very dangerous thing, and a horrible feeling.

A year on, is it as bad as you feared?
It’s much worse. But the checks and balances are working, to a degree. We are in the process of redefining what America is: it is not just the nation that pulls out of the Paris agreement, but also our mayors and governors who remain committed to it. It is not just a president who would ban transgender people from the military, but also the courts which are blocking those executive orders.

On a personal level, do you see it as the closing chapter of your career at the heart of politics?
I think once you have tasted public service at that level, you want to do it again. Whether I will have the opportunity to do so, I don’t know. President Obama had this line about history zigging and zagging, progress not going in a straight line. Every time I hear that now I think: “OK, maybe enough zigging. I think it’s probably zag time now.”

The Final Year is in cinemas and on iTunes from 19 January


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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