“Seize it – it will not be given” – Samantha Power in Conversation with Allan Little

“Seize it – it will not be given” – Samantha Power in Conversation with Allan Little

In a conversation which covered her time as a war correspondent in Bosnia to her roles as Human Rights Advisor to President Barack Obama and US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power spoke this evening to BBC special correspondent and Chair of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Allan Little in the annual Frederick Hood Memorial Lecture.

Starting her career with as an intern with an American career foreign service officer, Power became interested in foreign affairs while fact-checking his speeches and articles. This led her to Bosnia as a war correspondent where she first met Allan Little, who was reporting from Sarajevo for the BBC. “Bosnia was a weird anachronism, from another age. We thought it was a last gasp – little did we know. Once you actually learn what’s happening in a place like that,” she said, “I was hooked, once you’ve dipped your toes into this cauldron – it was devastating, interesting and very challenging.” She talked about her moral imagination – her ability to be in someone else’s shoes, and how she believed that sensibility was heightened by being proximate to such needless suffering. 

She covered the massacre at Srebrenica for the Washington Post, and hoped that her reporting would move more people, and felt disillusioned when it didn’t. She hoped that her words would reach the President, and other leaders who could make a difference, but she had learned that it was the political pressure, the grassroots and grasstops pressure that could change lives, so put herself on a different track, going back to the US and to law school. 

She spoke of the difficulty she had in finding a publisher for her first book The Problem from Hell, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the attention of an up-and coming senator who was launching his campaign to run for president of the USA.  After an initial meeting with Barack Obama, where she was impressed by his interest not in massacre and genocide per se, but what one can learn more broadly about the dysfunction of American foreign policy, she joined his team to support his campaign for the Democratic nomination, up against Hilary Clinton.

Power addressed the devastation she felt when, in an unguarded moment on a book tour in Ireland speaking to a journalist from The Scotsman, she called Hilary Clinton ‘a monster’.  “At first I didn’t believe I’d said it, I forgot I’d lost my temper in front of a journalist.” The resulting furore, which became a major international news story, resulted in her resigning from the Obama campaign. “At the time I really thought I was going to be the cause of great harm to him,” she said. “For the first time in my life I was without a task, without work, a cause – staring out at a blank horizon.”

She did, however, follow Obama to the White House after his election as President, firstly as his Advisor on Human Rights and later as the American Ambassador to the United Nations. Tackling Human Rights issues around conflicts in Darfur, Libya and, more recently Syria, Little ended the interview by asking her what kept her hopeful.

“Young people,” she said, “or the larger answer is the level of activation of people who have never seen politics of public service as their purview.”  She went on to cite examples of professional athletes refusing to play their sport, more women in the USA running for office than have ever run in an election cycle and the highest midterm turnout since Watergate in 2018. Young people in particular protesting about the climate, Black Lives Matter, and in the US about gun control – “Issues that the older generation, including my own, have not gotten right. People are saying enough, waiting for top down changes that have not been forthcoming. Seize it – it will not be given. That’s powerful.”

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The Frederick Hood Memorial Lecture is supported by Walter Scott & Partners. You can rewatch this event in full on our website: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/samantha-power-with-allan-little-what-one-person-can-do/player

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