On her first day at the U.N., Samantha Power steps into disarray

In this photo provided by the United Nations, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, left, poses with Samantha Power, the United States new UN Ambassador to the U.N., after Power presented her credentials to the Secretary General Monday, Aug. 5, 2013, at UN headquarters. AP Photo/Evan Schneider, United Nations

UNITED NATIONSSamantha Power tweeted at 8:48 a.m. on the day she presented her credentials to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: "Eager," she said, "to get things done."

She has a lot on her plate.

During her confirmation hearing a month ago, Samantha Power, then a special assistant to the president and national security staffer at the White House, was asked if she would challenge the actions of the United Nations that run contrary to U.S. standards, values and interests.

On the mismanagement side, she told the questioner, Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the U.N. runs contrary to our aspirations. On the values side, she said, the U.S. must use "the bully pulpit" and think creatively to halt actions that "trample human dignity."

She went on to point out the failure of the U.N. to respond to Syria, saying, "We see the failure of the U.N. Security Council to respond to the slaughter in Syria -- a disgrace that history will judge harshly."

So -- what does Power confront at the U.N. and what can she "get started" doing? The human rights activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar confronts a U.N. Security Council stymied by Syria; protests in Egypt; a global al Qaeda threat; a defiant North Korea and Iran; a new round of Middle East negotiations; and continued fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and South Sudan -- just to name a few hot-button issues where the U.N. finds its hands tied.

Power is diving into public appearances, if not press stakeouts or conferences, for now. She met with young refugees at the International Rescue Committee Refugee Youth Summer Academy in New York City; she is present at U.N. Security Council meetings; and will reportedly visit the U.N. Operations and Crisis Center, a 24/7 watch department for U.N. field operations and peacekeepers, on Friday.

At her first press encounter, en route to present her credentials to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Power said she had worked with the Secretary General over the last few years at the White House and was "totally delighted" to be at the U.N. She talked about her Senate testimony, too.

Power's enthusiasm and energy may add a new dimension to the U.N. She is the youngest U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. in history, closely followed by Ambassador Donald McHenry, Ambassador Susan Rice and Ambassador Andrew Young.

"The U.N. is critical to a range of U.S. interests, and U.S. leadership at the U.N. is indispensable to making progress on those interests," she said.

"We have a lot to discuss upstairs and even more to do."

Then, Powers hinted at her priorities, saying "whether it's terrorism or the broader range of security concerns; mass atrocities in Syria; (fighting in) South Sudan; the effort to alleviate global poverty; the crackdown on civil society around the world. There are just so many issues where the United States and the United Nations have to work together to achieve progress."

But the state of affairs at the U.N. will test her determination.

Tension between the U.S. and Russia on l'affaire Snowden and on the Russian crackdown on gay rights is sure to play out in the Security Council. The Mercosur countries' ministers from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Venezuela made clear Monday their fury with U.S. policy, including intelligence gathering and an incident that forced the Bolivian president to divert his flight to Austria. They also expressed their anger at the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

To most diplomats, the Syria conflict is one of the most troubling. As chemical weapons use is being investigated, Iran is adding fuel to the fire. Refugees are spilling into neighboring countries and sectarian fighting is expanding in the region.

Darfur is still witnessing the war crimes that Powers saw when she traveled with the U.N in 2004.

Contrasting Power's enthusiastic attitude is pessimism about the U.N.'s ability to resolve conflicts.

On the wall of the General Assembly building in the U.N. is the quote of a former U.N. Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, who said, "The United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell."

For the moment, notwithstanding her faith in the "bully pulpit," Power took no questions.

Whether or not she can live up to the accomplishments of former ambassadors, some of whom went on to other distinguished careers, remains to be seen. In the interim, a fresh view that something actually can be "done" may be the most productive view that the U.N. needs to tackle the intractable conflicts it is facing.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.

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