Former UN ambassador visits 5Cs to discuss current state of democracy

Samantha Power stands behind a Claremont McKenna College podium.
Former UN Ambassador Samantha Power visited Claremont McKenna College on Sept. 19. She discussed polarization and technology, democracy and how to enact change. (Chris Nardi • The Student Life)

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said her book, which covers topics from growing up in a Dublin, Ireland, pub, to her love life to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is worth a read for students looking to make a difference.

Power spoke to a packed room of 5C students at Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum on Sept. 19 about the dangers of polarization, the status of democracy and how people can begin to address the major issues in the world today.

Power recently released a memoir, “The Education Of An Idealist,” which details her life and journey from Pulitzer Prize-winning war journalist to former President Barack Obama’s U.S. ambassador to the UN from 2013 to 2017. 

Currently, she works as a professor at both Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School.

Power began her presentation with light humor about the process of writing her book. 

“I went back through my journals. Oh my god, don’t ever do that,” she said.

Power divided her talk into three sections: polarization and technology, democracy and how to enact change.   

Domestic political polarization is the biggest threat to the nation today, she said, and specifically here in the U.S., is stopping the country from undertaking ambitious and necessary foreign policy projects, due to lack of bipartisan support. 

She also discussed how polarization leads to major foreign policy swings as presidential administrations change.  

“The consequences of our polarization are tangible in foreign policy,” she said. 

Power cited Obama’s nuclear agreement negotiations with Iran, which were undone by the Trump administration, as an example. 

“Imagine a successor to the current president trying to do an agreement on any topic. What does the rest of the world say to them?” she said. “Why should [they] trust that this is gonna be an enduring deal with America?” 

One way to address this lack of consistency could be to ratify treaties in the U.S. Congress to ensure their longevity, Power said. But polarization has hindered this process as well in recent years.

Power emphasized that other nations, like Russia, use developing technology like social media to capitalize on U.S. weakness and try to deepen U.S. political divisions.  

“Content circulated by Russia on Facebook has included posts that were both supportive and critical of the Black Lives Matter movement … In favor of repealing Obamacare, and supportive of Obamacare,” she said. 

Power added that technology can also be deadly, empowering extreme perspectives, like in Myanmar, where Facebook was critical to the mass atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar, according to UN findings. 

Power called on Claremont students to try to mitigate the use of technology as it progresses.

She also discussed what she called a “crisis of confidence in democracy” in the world today, contrasting it with the post-Cold War sentiment that democracy would become the global norm. 

“The certainty and hubris around that period, no one should ever go back to,” Power said. 

But she also cautioned against predictions of democracy’s decline, citing current resistance efforts against autocratic leaders in Turkey and Russia. 

To close out the evening, Power introduced a method she employs when trying to combat the overwhelming problems around the world. 

 “There is no more important message,” she said, “than the idea there is always something we can do, however small.” 

Hailey Wilson CM ’22, who attended an event with Power before the presentation, said this message was especially memorable.  

“That really stuck with me,” she said.  “Making little changes that … become a sequence of events to an even bigger change.”

But the presentation was not universally well-received.

“I just feel like it was quite monotonous and stuff that most people have already heard already so a little bit cliche,” Anna Choi PO ’23 said. “I guess I was a little disappointed.”

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