‘Romance and Putin’: Samantha Power talks new memoir, ‘The Education of an Idealist’

Oct. 10, 2019, 11:09 p.m.

In front of a crowd at Dinkelspiel, Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.), recounted U.N. Security Council discussions of the Syrian Civil War. Here, as with other Security Council debates, Power recalled her dedication to bridging the gap between “sterile” decisions regarding human rights and those critically impacted by them. Throughout her dynamic career, Power has ensured that the human side of diplomacy remains at the forefront of the conversation. 

Thursday’s talk wasn’t Power’s first at Stanford, but this time was different. She was on campus to discuss her recent memoir, “The Education of an Idealist.” The conversation, moderated by Maha Ibrahim ’92, focused on Power’s experiences as a war correspondent in Bosnia, her role on the National Security Council and her advice for aspiring activists. 

Power reflected on her path to public service, citing early experiences in journalism as formative in her career. In particular, reporting on atrocities during the Yugoslav wars revealed to her the power of stories in galvanizing action. Power, who won the Pulitzer prize for her 2002 book “A Problem from Hell,” emphasized that being a storyteller is “indispensable as a diplomat.” 

Power highlighted the necessity of humanizing conflicts and their correlating policies, adding that it is important to work directly with those affected by war crimes in order to make meaningful change. 

“Oftentimes, the best kind of storytelling requires getting out of the way,” she said. 

Power explained her reasoning for writing the memoir, noting that she was compelled to “speak to this moment and to people.” Understanding that the majority of Americans are not present in high-level policy discussions yet maintain a vested interest in national decision-making, she has aspired to open up the life of public service to those not traditionally in such conversations. 

She expressed hope that her story will demonstrate the ability of the individual to make meaningful change. Her motto, “can implies ought,” hinges upon a recognition that private citizens can have an impact on the issues about which they are passionate — a concept that many people lack, viewing global challenges as inaccessible.  

When asked about the challenges of representing America on the global stage, Power emphasized the importance of empathy and collaboration. As U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Power made a conscious effort to visit all the 191 other U.N. missions — many of which had never hosted a U.S. Ambassador before — and strived to tackle international issues through “global collaboration.”

“America is often the country that is most outspoken or else no one will be,” Power said. 

Though the discussion centered around Power’s integral role in American foreign policy, particularly her championing of human rights, she interspersed the discussion with moments of humor and humility.

One of Power’s stories took the audience back to when she was five months pregnant and newly appointed U.S. Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, wandering lost through the White House in search of the Oval Office. Another story detailed an email listserv mishap that ultimately introduced Power to her future husband. She was candid in her acknowledgment of her setbacks as well as her successes.

“This may be the only memoir from a government official that combines romance and Putin.” Power quipped. 

Asked what motivates her continued activism through the turbulence of current domestic politics, she said, “I have a voice, I have a pen.” 

Contact Brooke Beyer at bbeyer ‘at’ stanford.edu and Emma Smith at esmith11 ‘at’ stanford.edu

Brooke Beyer '22 is a Desk Editor for the News section. She is originally from Los Altos, California but grew up in London and Singapore. Brooke is studying International Relations and English, with a focus on history and human rights.Emma Smith '22 is a desk editor for the Academics beat of news. She is originally from Oak Park, IL and is studying International Relations with a focus on the intersection between international security and human rights. Contact her at esmith11 'at' stanford.edu.

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