Idealism, Leaning In, and Other Insights from Samantha Power

The former UN ambassador delivers the Jonathan Moore Memorial Lecture on Moral Global Leadership at Tufts
A woman addressing a crowd. Former UN ambassador Samantha Power talks at Tufts about idealism, leaning in, Putin, and more.
“The direction of our communities, our country, and the broader world will always come down to the actions of individuals,” said Samantha Power. Photo: Anastasiya Kazakova
December 17, 2019

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Is idealism possible in the real world? Yes, says former ambassador Samantha Power, with hard and purposeful work. Delivering the inaugural Jonathan Moore Memorial Lecture on Moral Global Leadership entitled “The Education of an Idealist,” Power highlighted four lessons learned inside and outside of government, many through the mentorship of Moore, who was a longtime member of the external advisory board of Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership and served six presidents during his distinguished public and academic career.

Now a professor of the practice at the Kennedy School and Law School at Harvard University, Power was President Barack Obama’s permanent representative (ambassador) to the United Nations and a member of his cabinet from 2013 to 2017. She also served as Obama’s human rights advisor.

Here are four takeaways from Power’s talk at The Fletcher School on December 4.

Gratitude is the bedrock of idealism. As a twenty-two-year-old war correspondent in the Balkans, Power saw “atrocities and brutality of a kind that I had previously only read about. The experience was, in many respects, searing,” she said, but she knew that her journalist role also protected and empowered her. “I felt incredibly privileged,” she said.

When she returned to the United States, that gratitude and self-awareness eroded. Power fell prey to self-pity as she adjusted to law school and later saw publication of her first book fall through. It was Moore who jolted her back to reality by putting her difficulties into perspective. “Have you ever been ethnically cleansed?” he demanded. He also showed her how gratitude played such a strong role in his own life. Power concluded that “a disposition for gratitude is an indispensable foundation for sustaining one’s idealism in a very, very and ever messier world.”

No one succeeds by themselves. “Family and friends make everything possible,” Power said. Over the years, when asked for advice about work-life balance and overcoming obstacles, she would invoke Hillary Clinton, whom Power once heard say, “It’s not so much lean in,” as Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandburg put it, “as lean on.” You may never find the optimal way to integrate work and life, but leaning on a network is essential, Power said.

Don’t underestimate the importance of human dignity. Human desire for dignity and respect is omnipresent throughout history, and we ignore it at our peril. Power recalled Tank Man, the unidentified civilian who stood in front of army tanks as the Chinese government began its crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square. Millions saw his photo, which is among many indelible images that have fueled social and political movements.

“Why have many Russians supported Vladimir Putin despite that country’s stagnant economy and the quality of life issues?” she asked. “At least partly, I think it’s fair to say, because many Russian people believe that Putin has restored Russia’s status as a major player on the world stage.” She also speculated that many voters who supported Barack Obama but shifted to Donald Trump did so because they felt ignored.

As UN ambassador, Power aspired to meet with each of her 191 counterparts, which had never before been done. “Regardless of their size, their wealth, or their geopolitical heft, I could show them America’s respect,” Power said. That required looking for the humanity in those with whom the United States disagreed, such as Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin.

“Because I tried to understand what motivated him and knew him, I think I was better able to predict what he would do next, which was a strategic advantage,” she said. Power ultimately met with every UN member country’s representative except North Korea’s.

Individual service matters. Wherever we find ourselves, said Power, we can make a difference. Jonathan Moore rendered service both on the world stage and in small daily acts that spread the spirit of gratitude and human dignity. She quoted his advice to “pick your battles and go win some” and found a silver lining even in the bitter impeachment inquiry that “has produced a profound unintended benefit of showcasing the unsung heroes who put country first.”

Are “we” going to be OK? It’s the question Power hears most often. Her answer: It’s up to us. “For all of the policy prescriptions and the structural reforms that one can offer, Jonathan taught us never to lose sight of the fact that the direction of our communities, our country, and the broader world will always come down to the actions of individuals.”

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