Samantha Power

American Leadership in a Changing World - January 13, 2016

Samantha Power
January 13, 2016— South Orange, New Jersey
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Power gave this address at Seton Hall University.

Thank you, Dr. Bartoli, for that introduction and for all the work you’ve done throughout your career in pursuit of peace, in places visible and not so visible. Thank you for that. And a huge thanks to Seton Hall for hosting us all today. The main purpose of this gathering is not to give you all my version of the State of the Union. I have a boss – he’s a kind of good speaker. [Laughter.] He’s a little famous for that, and for a few other things. And following him on stage is a very, very bad idea. [Laughter.] But before we open it up to take questions and to talk about the state of the world and to engage on issues of foreign policy, I’d like to share briefly with you a more focused look on some of the foreign policy themes that the President spoke to last night. And specifically, to share with you a perspective from where I get to sit as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

If you’ve been following the election coverage lately, as I’m sure many of you have, something you often hear – from one part of the field at least – is that America’s global influence has been in steady decline, in no small part thanks to President Obama. If these voices are to be believed, the United States is seen around the world as weak, disengaged, rudderless.

Now, I have a perspective on this. From where I sit, I have a unique vantage point into how other countries view the United States. Because in addition to having the privilege of sitting behind a placard that says “The United States of America” every day and speaking on behalf of our nation, I also have a lot of opportunities to hear from what the other 192 UN Member States think about us – from engaging them in the UN Security Council, to negotiating with them on new sanctions, or whether to deploy a peacekeeping force, just simply getting to know their diplomats as individuals and to get to know their families in New York. I’ve also had the chance to meet with a range of people, of course, when I travel abroad on official trips, from refugees to UN peacekeepers, from civil society activists to the very political leaders that those civil society activists are seeking to hold accountable.

And across these encounters, what strikes me is how consistently people around the world look to the United States to lead when it comes to tackling the great problems of our time. If there’s one formula for every encounter, or one prediction one can make, they’re going to be asking the United States to lead – and believing that little will happen if the United States does not. Our challenge is not that people around the world lack faith in American leadership – it’s frankly that they look for America to lead in every single crisis and sometimes believe that, because of our strength and our capabilities, that we can solve and fix every problem by ourselves. That can sometimes prove a challenge – as others within the community of nations, within the international community, sometimes aren’t willing to pull their weight or to do their fair share. But that’s a problem that is hardly born of other countries’ belief that America is weak. That’s a belief that we can just snap our fingers and remake the world ourselves.

These people believe, as so many of us do as well, that America has a unique and indispensable role to play in the world. And I want to just briefly touch upon how I think we can continue to live up to that expectation, keep America safe and strong, and I’d like to draw on three points that President Obama made last night.

First, today’s global challenges are such that we have to rally other nations to our side. Some look at efforts to build coalitions and common cause, again, as a sign of weakness. But just because America is the most powerful nation on Earth doesn’t mean it is smart – or in the interests of the American people, or in the interests of the world – for the United States to go it alone. We have to get other countries to share the burden, and many of the problems that I’m sure you’ll want to engage on here momentarily are ones that structurally require those coalitions. But even if we tried to do everything ourselves – on climate change, for instance, or on terrorism – one country cannot deal with threats that cross borders in the way that modern threats do.

The approach that we have taken is one that has allowed us to initially bend – and then end – the curve of the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Just a few weeks ago, on December 29, Guinea was finally declared Ebola-free, making it the last of the three countries hardest hit by the epidemic, after Liberia and Sierra Leone, to get down to zero cases. And more than 11,000 people lost their lives in the Ebola outbreak – it’s devastating, that toll. And communities are scarred and survivors are stigmatized to this day. But hundreds of thousands – if not millions – more people might have died if the United States had not catalyzed a global response to stop Ebola’s spread.

When the world was slow to wake up to the threat that the outbreak posed, we didn’t just deploy some 3,000 military personnel, doctors, epidemiologists, logisticians, and development workers to lead the effort on the ground – far more than any other government. We also – these individuals – collaborated with communities on the ground. We partnered. We have sought to invest in the capacity of these communities who will ultimately dictate the fate of their nations. And we leveraged the commitments that we made to get other countries to come on board. And I can tell you, just from being at the United Nations, what it meant when President Obama came forward and said – notwithstanding the fact that our military is active in multiple theaters around the world; notwithstanding the fact that for all of us Ebola is a new phenomenon, one we are struggling even still to understand the precise epidemiology of how it spreads and how it has moved over these last two years; notwithstanding all of that, when the United States stepped up to lead other countries said “Whoa, this is real. Now we’ve got to think to ourselves what can we do, how can we help?” And you saw that commitment, that initial commitment that the President made, in the face of pretty strenuous domestic concern, as you might recall. You saw the affect it had on other countries as others also stepped up to help build emergency treatment units, to send health workers, to provide basic equipment like plastic bottles and chlorine and SIM cards for phones so that people who were showing symptoms of Ebola, that that information could quickly be shared so that contacts could be traced and, again, the spread could be curbed. When the world needs an all-hands-on-deck effort, America not only does its part – we step up and we lead.

And that is the approach we have also taken to destroying the monstrous terrorist group ISIL, as we have marshalled a coalition of 65 countries that is not only confronting the group militarily, but necessarily working together to cut off ISIL’s financing, to stop the flow of terrorist fighters from other parts of the world, to counter the spread of the venomous ideology that ISIL has used to attract recruits and to fuel terror. And it is the approach you saw as we led nearly 200 countries in reaching the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change, aimed at preserving our majestic planet for generations to come.

Second, we pursued a path of principled engagement with governments hostile to the United States. This is something that has really been a hallmark of President Obama’s leadership. Now engaging regimes that are violating international norms or abusing their own people does not mean that we are condoning their behavior, that we are naïve about the threats that they pose, that we think that somehow we’re going to snap our fingers and they’re going to change overnight. Nor does it mean at any point we become blind to the abuses that they commit. Rather, we believe that we should explore the tools in the toolbox to see which might work in order to bring about improvement in our national security, improvement in the conditions in which citizens abroad have to live in. And diplomacy is a tool in the toolbox, and in the appropriate circumstances, it should be tested.

Look at Cuba. For more than 50 years our efforts to isolate the Castro government actually ended up isolating the United States, providing the regime with a pretext for its repression and an excuse for its shortcomings. Instead of answering to the people, they’d just point to the embargo and say “it’s the Americans, they’re the reason you’re struggling in this way. They’re the reason things aren’t going the way you want for your kids and your grandkids.” By restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, we have taken away the regime’s bogeyman, we have strengthened our relationships with other governments across the Americas, and we have actually put ourselves in a better place to help advance the human rights of the Cuban people.

Look at Iran. Clear-eyed about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iranian government, we built up a global coalition to impose sanctions. And those sanctions eventually brought the regime to the negotiating table; and those sanctions provided the pressure to keep them at the negotiating table. The result was a nuclear deal that, if implemented, will cut off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.

Does engagement diminish our concern about the instability that Iran fuels beyond its nuclear program? Of course not. No. Does it mean that we will stop condemning the Cuban government’s repression of its own people? Not for one minute. Some say it is foolish to engage these regimes. Seeing what we have been able to achieve, though, through principled engagement, we think it would be foolish not to.

This brings me to my third and final point. We recognize that one of our greatest strengths, and a major reason that the world looks to the United States to lead, is our values. Yet lately, we’re hearing more and more people calling for actions that would compromise those values, or outright contradict those values.

And here let me give you one example. We are witnessing the largest wave of refugees and displacement since the Second World War – many of whom are fleeing the catastrophic conflict in Syria, where they are caught between a regime that gasses, barrel-bombs, and deliberately starves its own people – caught between that on the one hand – and violent extremists who sell women like cattle in markets, and murder people just because of their religious preference or because of their ethnicity. That is the world these people are fleeing. And yet some in this country, including some politicians, have called for us to turn away innocent people who are trying to escape these horrors. More than half of America’s governors have said they do not want their states to admit refugees from places like Syria. More than half. Others have gone further, arguing that because some people have used religion perversely to justify their acts of terror, we should start using faith to determine who should and should not be admitted to the United States.

They say that keeping these “others” out of America – whether those “others” are refugees, Muslims, Syrians, or members of some other group – they say it’s the only way to keep us safe. But these people misunderstand who we are and what makes us strong. As the President said last night, “The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way that we respect every faith.” Compromising on those core values has never made America more secure – and it never will. Just look at our history, name a time when sacrificing our pluralism, our respect for freedom of religion, or any of our other core principles has made this country more secure. It has not. It will not. You cannot think of a time when it has.

By turning away refugees, we would lose out on the tremendous contributions that they will make to our societies – that they have made. One of my predecessors as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations was Madeleine Albright – a refugee. Google founder Sergey Brin. Philanthropist George Soros. Another former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

If these stakes do not feel real enough, take a moment to speak with some of the brave individuals and families who are here with us today, like an Iraqi family I had the privilege of meeting earlier this morning. A young woman in the family had worked for years helping U.S. journalists reporting from Iraq, and eventually she married an American and moved here with him. As a result, her relatives in Iraq were labeled “collaborators” by violent extremists – and several were kidnapped and murdered. The young woman’s mother, two sisters, brother, and her four little nieces and nephews lived in constant fear that they would be next. So they applied to come to the United States through a special program that assists people who helped Americans in Iraq. And a few months ago, a number of them were allowed to come to the United States, settling in Brooklyn. Members of that family are here with us today, and out of concern for the safety of their loved ones who are still in Iraq, I will not share their names. But would any of us want to live in a country that would turn away a family like this, because of where they are from, or because of what they believe?

Tarique Ahmed Zafar is also here. He fled Pakistan – together with his wife, Atiqa, and their other son, Salik, who is five years old and Nouman, who is three. They had been persecuted for belonging to the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam. Today, they live in Jersey City, where Tarique works at a local department store, and Salik has just started school. Imagine, for a moment, refusing to take in a family threatened for its beliefs, simply because they are Muslim.

These are just two of a handful of the refugee families who are here today. And I urge you to go out into your communities – these families are everywhere, they are part of the fabric of American life. Those who are here today are accompanied by representatives of several groups who have worked to help people like them when they come to the United States – to help settle them once they arrive – it’s a big adjustment. Talk to these families – there are a lot of choices in the grocery store in the United States, it’s really hard when you don’t speak the language. Getting your kids acclimatized into schools, where not only is the language an issue but even the script in which we write. These are real, really challenging times and the organizations who help these families adjust really do God’s work and I tip my hat to them. We have here today the Church World Services, HIAS, Human Rights First, the International Refugee Assistance Project. And we are joined on stage and in the audience by members of several student groups at Seton Hall who’ve dedicated a whole lot of volunteer hours to advancing America’s deepest held principles, such as law school students who have taken up some of these asylum cases pro bono.

This is in keeping with the vision and service of Seton Hall’s founder, Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, who found his way to his Catholic faith working with poor immigrants in Harlem in the middle of the 19th century, many of whom had immigrated to the United States from Ireland, as my family did when I was just nine years old. And it is in keeping with this school’s long tradition of embracing people of all faiths, ethnicities, and nationalities – including refugees, a spirit reflected in the bumper sticker that I saw tacked to a Dean’s door when I walked in today that said “Jesus was a refugee.” Surely we can get that bumper sticker around town and around the country. Jesus was a refugee.

I want to give a special shout out to Mayor Domenick Stampone of Haledon, who’s also here with us today. Where is he? [Applause.] Alright, so Mr. Mayor – he was one of 18 mayors who wrote to President Obama in September saying his community was ready to welcome all refugees. The borough of Haledon also passed a resolution last month affirming it as a place “where all are welcome and where those fleeing persecution may find safe refuge.” Jesus was a refugee. We salute the Mayor and the entire Haledon community for their courage, and we know that the more that people open their ears and their hearts and actually get to know these families, we know that more mayors are going to join the mayor of Haledon in sending this message. That is what the vast majority of the American people want.

To these individuals, groups, and to all of the members of this community who welcome refugee families, again, I would just say thank you. You represent the proudest of American values and traditions and our communities are stronger because of the work that you are doing. And to the families like Tarique’s, the Iraqi family that I mentioned, my new friends the Al Teibawis who came here from Syria about a month ago, and so many others, we say: America welcomes you, our families welcome your families. [Applause.]

It is these values – together with our willingness to use principled diplomacy to engage adversaries, and our willingness to rally multilateral coalitions behind the causes we know to be right, behind the causes we know to be necessary also for the safety and the security of the American people – these are the values, this is the foreign policy that will allow the United States to continue to lead for generations to come. I thank you, and I look forward to our discussion.

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