How I got Samantha Power to speak at Exeter

Noah James '21 coaxed the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to address this year's Model U.N. conference.

By
Noah James '21
January 13, 2021

Samantha Power, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, served as the keynote speaker at PEAMUN XII, the Exeter Model United Nations Club's annual conference.

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to run the federal agency overseeing American foreign humanitarian and development aid and its $20 billion budget. Power served as U.N. ambassador under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for her book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” about the U.S. foreign policy response to genocide. In November, thanks to outreach by Noah James ’21, Power served as the keynote speaker for Exeter’s annual Model U.N. conference. We asked Noah to share with us how he landed a former U.S. ambassador and one of the foremost foreign-policy thinkers in the country for the appearance:

 

This past summer, I was given a copy of Samantha Power's memoir, An Education of an Idealist. I'd been a fan of the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for years, impressed by her role as an activist within government, never shedding her idealism as she fought to prioritize upholding human rights within American foreign policy. Embarking on a road trip from Massachusetts to New Mexico, the memoir was packed at the top of my suitcase. Driving through the farmlands of Kansas and the storms of Oklahoma, I was enthralled by Power's story. She writes about her relationship with President Obama, her experience as a war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia, and the high-adrenaline diplomacy of the United Nations. But the book is so much more, as she questions her relationship with her faith in the face of tragedy, explores her childhood as an immigrant in a difficult family situation, and speaks to the importance of female empowerment in male-dominated workplaces.

I ventured through the 500-something paged book in those long days in the car, my eyes constantly torn between the pages and the views outside of my window. Arriving in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I began writing a letter thanking Ambassador Power for her incredible work and her vulnerability in telling her story. Unlike most memoirs I'd read, where the author paints themselves as a hero while trying to preserve a sense of modesty, Power is honest with her audience, honest about her triumphs and her flaws. As Thomas Friedman put it in his book review for The New York Times, "Power is unstinting in giving you all the ammunition you need to denounce or defend her."

I packaged up my thanks and admiration in a rambling letter and dug through the internet for her contact information.

"You guys are the future, and we're not doing that well. We fully mature adults haven't exactly gotten it together."
Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

At Exeter, I'm one of the co-heads of the Model United Nations club, and by this point in the summer, I'd been meeting with fellow board members and my classmates Stephen McNulty, Alana Yang, Nahla Owens and Phil Horrigan nearly every week to plan for our upcoming fall conference, PEAMUN XII. Each year, our club hosts over 500 delegates on campus from schools across New England for a day of engaging debate. Obviously, this year would have to be different. Over the spring term, we'd tried out several online in-house committees with our club members and were determined to make PEAMUN work virtually. Our staffers were already working on detailed background guides for their committee topics, ranging from “Incarceration During COVID-19” and the “Yemen Crisis” to “The Lion King.”

Thinking of our upcoming conference, I added a short paragraph about PEAMUN to my letter to Ambassador Power before hitting the "send" button. As all of our conference proceeds would be donated to charities and humanitarian organizations, I thought we might have the slightest chance that Ambassador Power would take interest in our event, maybe even agree to make an appearance. But, in all honesty, I expected my email to drift across the vast expanse of the internet into a far-away "junk" folder never to be read.

Some days later, I received a remarkable response. After reviewing her schedule, Ambassador Power agreed to become our keynote speaker for PEAMUN XII Opening Ceremonies, donating her time to speak with nearly 400 students and teachers from schools across Canada, the United States and Mexico. Without compensation, she would join us on a Sunday morning in November to read a short passage from her memoir and engage in a Q&A-style interview with me about her career as a diplomat, journalist and human rights activist.

Our board worked tirelessly through the fall to get ready, answering hundreds of emails; editing endless pages of background guides; prepping for moderating a full day of committee over Zoom; working with Exeter’s IT Director Ms. Archambault on the logistics of our webinar platform; and securing — through the graciousness of the Math Department — classrooms for our 30-person staff to run the conference.

Then came the morning of Nov. 8. As 9 a.m. neared, I sat in the Academy Building, anxious. Just in time, Ambassador Power popped onto the screen and after we quickly exchanged hellos, the webinar went live.

She began with short remarks about polarization in domestic politics before reading a passage from her memoir centered around her relationship with Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. In her time at the U.N., Ambassador Power often publicly criticized Russia's policies as reprehensible, from their involvement in the war in Syria to their stance on LGBTQ+ rights. Yet, throughout her tenure, she still had to work with Ambassador Churkin on countless issues where their interests aligned. She described how close they became, even inviting him to have Thanksgiving with her parents and recommending he watch FX's The Americans (a TV show about Soviet spies in the United States). Ambassador Power's reading offered important lessons about how to coexist and collaborate with those with whom we disagree, an especially important sentiment that morning, less than 24 hours after the U.S. presidential election had been called for Biden.

Following the reading, I began my interview with Ambassador Power, drawing on questions I'd drafted with audience input prior to the conference. Here are excerpts of some of the ambassador’s answers from the Q&A:

On the the role of the United Nations and the United States in upholding human rights:
There is a view out there that America's own record on race, for example, or just given how unequal we are . . . or our record historically in invading Iraq or the Vietnam War or the fact that we provide advanced weapon systems to countries that are involved in wars that are killing a lot of civilians, for example like Saudi Arabia, that all of that should disqualify us on some level from being outspoken on human rights. I think that those mistakes and the human consequences that have resulted absolutely have to inform how America goes about its business in the world, but what you learn when you're in the government is that there's really no such thing as neutrality on human rights.

We're not the world's policemen; we're a catalytic actor on the global stage, and we have a tool kit that involves a lot more than using military force. So, whether it's sanctions, doing what we did with Ebola –– which was deploying our military to build Ebola treatment units, which was a really unconventional use of our logistic capacity — or the kind of aggressive diplomacy we used on Iran and the Paris Climate Agreement, you can see there's a lot of tools in the toolbox that take into account human rights and human consequences.

On the United States’ interventionist tendencies:
I would caution against that word because, is tough, shoe-leather diplomacy to disable Iran's nuclear weapons program interventionism? That's diplomatic intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. So, I would caution against interventionism as a concept because it means very different things to different people. But the use of military force one has to be really, really careful about because it's so unpredictable and we know so little sometimes about the countries in which that is being contemplated. But that's really different than whether you try to pass your policies through a human rights filter and ask yourself: "Do we have tools in the toolbox that might actually help promote human rights or at a minimum, can we take a 'do no harm' stance?"
 
On American policy regarding refugees and the Trump administration’s decision to set the refugee limit to its lowest point since 1980:
During the Holocaust, we slammed our doors on Jewish refugees who were desperately trying to come to our country. In the last four years, we've slammed our doors on individuals who've fled, for example, the atrocities in Syria and have no place to go, are living in squalor and complete deprivation. Now, there's human rights reasons for being more generous and opening our doors, for sure. A sense that if we didn't know if we were a refugee or an American what would we want the rules to be? How humane would we want our government to be? I think there's good, sound reasoning in terms of finding this moral framework. The other reason is that you don't want millions of people living in squalor and susceptible to radicalization, which has happened so often in refugee camps in the past. So, America should be doing its share and then using that leverage to get other countries to do more . . . so we're not owning the entire problem ourselves.

We then went on to cover a range of topics, with Ambassador Power providing insight into the international response to the Ebola outbreak, as well as reflecting on her career as a war correspondent to stress the importance of "getting close to the people who are at the heart of the issues you care about."

When asked about how she balanced idealism and realism in government, Ambassador Power stated that her role as an activist did not end when she became a government official. She viewed her time in the Obama Administration as "the latest way in which I could try to prosecute my ideals and push for more attention to human rights in our foreign policy, which has neglected it too much."

We're not the world's policemen; we're a catalytic actor on the global stage, and we have a tool kit that involves a lot more than using military force."

I asked her how she decided to stay in government despite having to defend policies she disagreed with, one example being the Obama Administration's relative inaction when it came to atrocities in Syria. Power had recommended the U.S. act militarily following a chemical weapons attack on civilians by the Syrian government.

"In terms of me and how I lived with myself when things didn't go my way . . . I think to be in the room, to never silence yourself, to feel like your view is still welcome even if it's not always embraced made a big difference,” she said.

Ambassador Power concluded her time with us by offering words of encouragement to the students watching, applauding them for practicing compromise when simulating discussion of such significant issues.

"You guys are the future, and we're not doing that well,” she said. “We fully mature adults haven't exactly gotten it together. I really hope you'll continue to take advantage of Model UN. I can't tell you how many diplomats I've met, from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and other places where these chapters have cropped up, who have 'gone through the program.' It really teaches you how to walk in the shoes of others, which is the key skill to have not only as a diplomat, but as a human being."