The new documentary The Final Year shows a year in the life of the Obama administration as it wrestles with seemingly impossible foreign policy crises. The civil war in Syria, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, climate change and North Korea. The oncoming wind of Trump is barely felt by the administration during the election campaign until it arrives with a jolt and makes the administration's remaining months in the White House feel all the more crucial.
Many of the film’s central protagonists are well-known: National Security Advisor Susan Rice, John Kerry and the President himself – but Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the UN, takes centre stage. Her manner seems more human than her colleagues who've spent their lives in electoral politics. Having spent much of her life as an academic and critic of US foreign policy.
Power becomes something of the focal point of the film, travelling to Nigeria to comfort the mothers whose daughters have been kidnapped and delivering a powerful speech to new immigrants receiving American citizenship.
VICE spoke to her at the end of last year, about her reflections on her time in the White House, how it felt being in on the outside looking in at the Trump administration and where American foreign policy can go next.
VICE: Hi. You're promoting a film. I imagine that 's nothing compared to the kinds of schedules you’re used to.
Samantha Power: It's true but things have gotten a little cushy in my new life. I was out late with some London friends. You’re catching me on fumes a little bit but I’m going to rally for you.
Do you find it strange watching the film back now?
To me it’s motivating, it’s inspiring but audiences – some audiences – have a different reaction to it. It feels like a period piece, like a lost generation. But it’s totally within our power to lead on foreign policy again.
Indeed if anything, by the end we’re wiser about how to use our power and more plugged into the international system. 2015 was probably our best foreign policy year and that was on the heels of the ending the Ebola epidemic, but that was when we did the Paris agreement, [reinstating diplomatic ties with] Cuba, Iran [nuclear agreement] – it was an amazing and then 2016 you try to lock down what you’ve done, but you know people want a silver bullet and there isn't one.
You went from being a critic and a policy advisor to having a crucial role in the administration. How much did that change you?
I mean, my objectives stayed from what I can tell. I’m too self-aware not to admit the possibility of self-rationalisation, but the things I was fighting for the last day in office were very similar to what I was fighting for in the first place.
Where have I evolved? Just getting much more efficient at building coalitions among my fellow cabinet members. You really do come to realise that the most important discussions you have are outside the room, where the policy debate is happening because that's when you align yourself up with people so you come in and you’re part of a mini-team.
Basically, so much of policy is just about winning, it’s about trying to win the argument. It’s about trying to get your ideas embraced as the policy of the United States.
So the internal battles were the hardest ones?
Completely. In many ways, they are so much more important, and so much more challenging. Take the fate of the ebola epidemic, that was massively impacted by President Obama’s decision to send troops and health workers into the eye of the storm. There was a huge internal debate about that: Congress were calling for a wall to be built up and health workers not to be allowed back into the country. Then, once Obama had made the decision [to send US personnel to West Africa to assist], then that’s the easy part. Now I’ve got the ability to go to other countries and say “we’re putting 3,000 troops in harm's way what the heck are you guys doing?” So there was nothing better than being an advocate when we had made our minds up and we were in a strong position.
The climate negotiations were similar. We had to formulate what we were willing to do, what skin we were willing to put in the game. After that it’s a lot easier to go to China, go to India. So the most stressful part of my job as a member of the cabinet was the internal fights because they’re with my friends, my colleagues you know? It’s not stressful to fight with Russia about Aleppo. It’s stressful to have big differences with people whose values you share and who are equally loyal to the President and the country.
"In my articles, I could sympathise with the characters and be proud of how it’s written but you don’t care how something’s written in government, it’s all about how you prevail."
When you’re meeting with 50 people a day, and the people that you’re meeting are meeting with 50 people a day – how do you make sure that your message is heard and make sure that you’re being as persuasive as you can be?
It’s hard. I think just preparation, I mean I worked, I was reading intelligence and other sources of information every morning before I really started going in the day. Knowledge is a comparative advantage. I also always try to bring in the voices of people, whether it was NGOs or survivors or refugees – to hear their stories and project those experiences into these otherwise kind of sterile debates. So that was also kind of an important way of making people stop and get it out of their comfort zones a little bit.
I suppose like most laymen you read something that seems spot on in the New Yorker or whatever and think, well they should just put this writer in charge? And you are in a lot of ways that person, you are the academic you’ve thought about these issues. But do you change a lot when you stop being an outsider?
Well, I’m writing a book called The Education of an Idealist which is about: what does one learn? What I will say is that I found being on the outside kind of easier on the soul in the sense of: I could write a New Yorker piece on Darfur, what I thought was a great piece and then I would hope that Condoleezza Rice read the piece.
But the problem when you’re inside is that you’re reading someone’s article about whether or not your ideas are prevailing. When they don’t, there’s no other country that’s going to be the team captain to figure this thing out. So, to the degree that you are actually moved by the suffering of people on the ground, you are heartbroken because you know that if it’s not us, it’s not happening pretty much.
I mean again we have a lot of other countries, the British especially, but others as well, a huge amount of the international system, but mobilising a coalition, building movements and really strong policy responses – the US kind of had to be at the centre of that. In my articles, I could sympathise with the characters and be proud of how it’s written but you don’t care how something’s written in government, it’s all about how you prevail.
You had such a wide set of foreign policy goals, from responding to civil war in Syria to the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, climate change to the rising power of China and Russia. You can’t help but compare to the Trump administration, which not only seems to antagonise the rest of the world but also seems to have no desire to deal with many foreign policy questions at all. What do you think the bigger issue is – hostility or inaction?
I mean the only algorithm I can identify that seems to define what Trump himself wants to do is “tell me what Obama did and I want to do its opposite”. That’s a kind of action. So pulling out of the TPP, that’s action. Pulling out of the climate agreement or seeking to do so when the time has come is action. Then there is this malaise or passivity towards contemporary conflict which is pernicious inaction: so not mobilising, not being the leader on the Rohingya being systematically ethnically cleansed.
I mean Rex Tillerson, Trump's secretary of state, has said some things, but you know it’s so hard to build diplomatic coalitions, to put pressure on people to change their calculus, it requires more than a statement, it requires working the phone, having a summit, pulling people together trying to figure out incentives and disincentives for the people who might be abetting the Burmese government. I don’t see any diplomacy out of these people. So I think it really is both.
Is there anything positive that has come from the Trump administration?
I’ll be the first to say when Trump does something good. It makes me happy to know he helped get Aya Hijazi an Egyptian-American prisoner out of jail, someone whose fate I had been championing unsuccessfully for months that was a good thing and I applauded him. He got Joshua Boyle and his wife out of Pakistan, that’s a good thing. The strike against the Assad regime against their chemical weapons use was a good thing. I wish it had been better thought through and had more of a tail to it but that’s kind of it. I can’t think of a lot, just a few individuals here and there that have ended up benefiting from some of the relationships he’s built and then a single strike. It’s very hard to point to things that are net positives for the US in our interests.
So do you think that talented, smart people – if they’re offered a post in the Trump administration – should take one?
That’s a great question, I don’t think anyone can make that choice for anybody else. I do not judge people who say no, I don’t judge people who leave but my hope as a citizen is that good people go in. There is controversy on this some of my very close colleagues are adamant and very public in demanding that his whole economics team should resign.
I think it’s different is in foreign policy. If these people leave I don’t think it would that convince anybody that Trump is less... whatever they like in him. Whereas at least my friends who are economic experts believe that if the whole economics team bailed that that actually would have an effect on some of Trump’s supporters. So that's one difference.
But also I do think Trump’s complete lack of foreign policy experience means that there’s at least some scope for foreign policy experts that speak to the country to influence, if not Trump directly, the people around Trump in a way that is kind of less about do this, do that but just basic facts. There’s just so much ignorance and there hasn’t been a great respect for expertise by him and his people, but still the moment can come where they turn around and actually are curious for the first time. I mean George W Bush’s first term was very uncurious and then shifted. So it scares me to think of so many of these great people leaving and also it scares me to think of who would fill those spots because they’re long-term positions but Trump could fill them with political hacks.
So it’s probably not good to think in hypotheticals like this, but were this an Obama third term, and you were continuing to serve as ambassador to the UN, what kind of foreign policy goals do you think you’d be looking at?
Well like Cuba, the Trump administration is undoing what we did but as far as I can tell they don’t have a new Cuba policy. In other words; if our goal is democratisation then let’s see your plan. What’s the alternative, other than building more walls? I think on refugees, even though the courts have struck down the Muslim ban multiple times, that’s having a knock on effect on how many other countries will take refugees, whereas we would have been continuing to seek to build a global coalition to take more and more and more and probably would have had our numbers up even higher. I don’t know, I could go through issue after issue...
I wonder about things like the Atrocities Council, which you were instrumental in setting up, to make sure countries didn’t fall off the policy agenda. That just seems so far removed from what is currently going on in The White House.
They don’t think in those terms anymore I doubt that would still exist.
Does it still exist?
I doubt it. It was meant for the Burundis, the Ivory Coasts, you know the sort of smaller countries where those countries are not well known at the highest level and those issues wouldn’t traditionally rise. And the APB sort of ensured that even a small country would have its day in court like among senior policy makers. So it’s a shame to lose it because it was sort of a way of fighting gravity to make sure that people are fighting on those issues.
So is the answer that we grin and bear the next four years and wait for another election or do you feel like there are people outside of US government that should be doing a lot now? Can some other body take on some of the kind of diplomatic responsibilities that the US seems to be forgoing?
Well there’s a lot in that. You know I think the US is leading now, so we’re always leading, no matter what we do because no matter what you do, when you’re big you can just lead. So what Trump is doing and saying is a form of leadership, he’s into sucking up to autocrats, he’s projecting that around the world.
But other parts of American society are leading too. It’s a form of US action when we take state legislatures or when we make a Liberian refugee Mayor of Helena, Montana or a transgender state legislator. So, I wouldn’t discount that. and We’re so used to looking to the President to define, but we’re finding this other sort of more pluralistic sense of what America is.