Samantha Power on bringing the war front home

April 17, 2014, 6:28 AM UTC
Samantha Power, left, and Fortune’s Stephanie Mehta

FORTUNE — It is a busy time for Samantha Power — to say the least. As the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, Power is currently fighting the escalating conflict in Ukraine, dealing with a report from the United Nations of the routine use of torture in Syria and coping with difficult memories after traveling back from Rwanda to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide in the country

Yet unlike a majority of her White House executives, Power is dealing with this busy time in international affairs while raising two young children at home. Most women in her position might do everything in their power to leave the horrors of war and genocide at the door after coming home from the Oval Office.

Instead, Power takes the opposite approach. She does her best to inform her five-year old son what she is doing — within limits, she said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women event in New York City on Wednesday. Whether she has to leave dinner to discuss the latest development in Ukraine or with the United Nations, Power takes the time to explain to her son why she has to step away and take a phone call.

In fact, Power’s children are so informed with her day job that Vladamir Putin recently invaded her son’s playtime at school — at least by name.

“One of [my son’s] very dear friends was trying to take the toys he was playing with and my son said — and I never guessed he would be capable of this — ‘You’re just like Putin!,” Power told Fortune Deputy Managing Editor Stephanie Mehta in front of an audience that included Goldman Sachs (GS) managing director Dina Powell, Martha Stewart and Coca-Cola (KO) SVP Wendy Clark. “The [work-life] balance, I don’t have the balance.”

Power’s comments on bringing the war front home come in the wake of Ukraine exercising military force for the first time in an attempt to regain control of the east from pro-Russian separatists. The Obama administration supported Ukraine’s attempts to provide law and order. Yet Ukrainian efforts to regain control of the east quickly got out of control Wednesday as militants seized several Ukrainian military vehicles and took over Ukrainian government buildings.

The U.S. has already exercised economic sanctions against Russia that have sent the stock market there to record lows. Power said this could be just the beginning. As Russian aggression escalates, the degree of economic and diplomatic isolation that could ensue may be “significant,” Power said.

Before Power began working with the Obama administration, she was in some respects one of the White House’s biggest critics. A lifelong humanitarian advocate, Power is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. The book serves as a modern history of genocide  and in it she expresses her frustration with the United States’ inaction fighting against the issue. Power started her career as a  journalist and wrote regularly for the Atlantic Monthly from locations as diverse as Zimbabwe and Bosnia.

Now that Power finds herself in government, the Irish-born ambassador is finding that preventing abhorrent acts around the world remains difficult to accomplish. Syrian refugees continue to suffer as war rages on. Power has yet to convince her colleagues in the Oval Office to take steps forward in key human rights issues, like joining the 161 nations that have signed a treaty to ban land mines outright. Power said she hasn’t at all forgotten her critiques of the international policy and feels pressure enact real change while she is within the president’s cabinet.

“The standard is not if I’ve given a good speech in the Security Council,” she said “The standard is are we meaningful helping the people of Syria. There is no way I can say with any satisfaction that my effort is enough. That makes the work-life balance even harder because you can never work too hard on Syria given the scale of the devastation.”

Ending the evening on a lighter note, Power indirectly touched on the elephant in the room at most MPW events: Will the next president be a woman? Referencing her time on the 2008 campaign with Obama when he was running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic bid, she said they had a “hard fought campaign” that she at least once became intimately involved. But without naming any names, Power said she hopes the next president is a woman and she has “someone in mind.”

“Having watched her lead this country and represent the United States, the good that she can do just by getting off a plane… I can’t even begin to find words to capture that,” Power said.  “She just brings such rigor and conviction to everything she touches.”

The New York City MPW dinner cast a spotlight on the 9th annual Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, which brings rising-star women from developing countries to the U.S. each year to shadow participants of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. Since the program launched in 2006, more than 250 women from 55 developing countries have participated as mentees.