To be given a primer on the United Nations – its founding, structure, challenges, and potential – by a former United States Ambassador to the UN is a rare opportunity, one that students and faculty enjoyed when Samantha Power discussed her diplomatic experience with them on February 22, 2018. “I have a special connection to Middlesex,” she noted at the outset, “as my husband who went here [Cass Sunstein ‘72] is obsessed with Middlesex, so I get to hear about it all the time.”
Now the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, a professor of practice at Harvard Law School, and a 2017-18 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Ambassador Power served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama, first on the National Security Council and then, from 2013 to 2017, as U.S. Ambassador to the UN. In talking with Middlesex students about this work, she hoped to “spark your interest in the UN and how we mobilize in a time like this, when just as the country is divided, the world is divided, too.”
Calling the UN “a stage where countries come together,” Ambassador Power noted that since its establishment in 1945, the number of countries represented there has grown from 51 to 193, which “gives you a sense of how the world has changed,” she said. Over time, she continued, the organization has become “an actor in and of itself,” involved in a range of issues concerning refugees, health epidemics, children’s welfare, climate change, and peacekeeping. Unfortunately, Ambassador Power observed, “This is the place that has been jammed up on Syria,” as 11 proposals for setting sanctions or sending peacekeepers have been vetoed. In this case, she lamented, “The UN is reduced to a charity trying to get food to neighboring countries….Syria is the embodiment of how a system gets clogged up in a period of polarization.”
But the UN can be highly effective in confronting global threats, as she illustrated with the example of the 2014 Ebola crisis. With President Obama’s proposal to send 3000 troops to Liberia to build temporary hospital quarters, Ambassador Power was able to gain additional support and supplies through the Security Council, which led to stemming Ebola infections and preventing a pandemic. “This matters because it shows how the UN can work,” she affirmed.
As an American citizen who immigrated to United States from Ireland at the age of nine and has since worked as a journalist, earned a Pulitzer Prize, and served as an influential diplomat, Ambassador Power clearly finds it disheartening to see the United States not only withdraw from the Paris Agreement but from its role as a global leader. While a wealth of international problems remain, she pointed out, “Many jobs in the U.S. State Department are not filled,” resulting in “a vacuum of leadership” to be filled by other countries with very different agendas.
“Where does hope lie?” Ambassador Power asked. “The future – and that could easily be you.”