Samantha Power’s masterful book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, will make you want to do one of two things: drop everything and go work with her from the inside, to embolden our institutions and ennoble our leaders; or rage from the outside about the myriad failures of conscience and the fostering of cowardice that have consistently stymied the better angels of America’s nature.* It’s hard to see much middle ground.
In this thoroughly researched and thoughtful book, Power provides a remarkable history of modern-day genocide. She brings the reader to the death marches of Armenians in the gloaming of the Ottoman Empire to the wanton destruction of male Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo, all the while cataloging the all-too-familiar costs of all-too-familiar inaction on the part of world leaders – saving her sharpest critiques for her adopted homeland, America. This is a book that could profoundly change the way you view the international system, and those at the top of it.
From the mid-17th century, when the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years’ War to the mid-20th century, nations were assumed sovereign over their land and their citizens (summed up best in Millennial-speak as “you do you”). Certainly, there were land wars and civil wars, insurrection and imperialism, but nations didn’t question how other nations treated their people.
And then in the early 1900s, the Ottoman Empire began massacring its minority Christian Armenian population. This is important for two reasons: it stoked the passions of an American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, and caused him to speak out against a sovereign nation’s actions towards its people; and it inspired Raphael Lemkin to change the world.
Generally, the Great Man of History theory – the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that assumes, for example, that everything good or bad that happens during Barack Obama’s presidency is his doing – is just that: a fallacy. But Raphael Lemkin, a passionate Polish lawyer who eschewed decorum and tact in his zeal to codify genocide (his word) as a crime against humanity, was a Great Man of History. He is one of the the but fors of this story; but for Lemkin, it’s hard to see how the United Nations would ever have adopted the Genocide Convention, in December, 1948 or thereafter.**
The other but for of this story is darker and more deeply depressing: but for America’s reticence to enter the fray diplomatically or militarily, again and again, untold lives could have been saved. Power uses the taxonomy of inaction outlined by Albert Hirschman to underline the stated reasoning against action:
“Economist Albert Hirschman observed that those who do not want to act cite the futility, perversity, and jeopardy of proposed measures.”
Each category is pretty self-explanatory. Futility is the sense that nothing could help; perversity that an action could make things worse; and jeopardy a sense that American lives/interests would be harmed by action.
Power is at her best when presenting her unflinching criticism of the cowardice exemplified by America’s leaders each time they invoked the futility, perversity, and jeopardy of action. Facing genocide, or even the prospect of genocide, leaders cowed to interest groups and genocidal leaders, rather than stand up for the ideals they continually cited – nothing more or less than vague platitudes:
U.S. officials spin themselves (as well as the American public) about the nature of the violence in question and the likely impact of an American intervention. They render the bloodshed two-sided and inevitable, not genocidal. They insist that any proposed U.S. response will be futile. Indeed, it may even do more harm than good, bringing perverse consequences to the victims and jeopardizing other precious American moral or strategic interests. They brand as “emotional” those U.S. officials who urge intervention and who make moral arguments in a system that speaks principally in the cold language of interests. They avoid use of the word “genocide.” Thus, they can in good conscience favor stopping genocide in the abstract, while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, and for good reason; it is thoughtful, unsparing, and scathing. Reading it and thinking about it helped clarify the way I think about America’s role in the world. From the perspectives of morality and pragmatism, we have an obligation to be better; anything less than our best – the officially sanctioned torture in Abu Gharib, the deaths of innocents in misguided drone strikes, the idiocy of using a public health campaign as a front for espionage – invites bad actors to use those same methods. And inaction in the face of injustice and terror is nothing if not a green light for its continuance.
Power, now the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, has walked back some of her more forceful critiques of American action and inaction of the past, saying at her confirmation hearing that “Serving in the executive branch is very different than sounding off from an academic perch.” Activists worry that she has lost her zeal.
This strikes me as unlikely. While it is certainly true that she speaks more carefully now than she wrote before, it seems obvious that she is brilliant, passionate, and willing to do what it takes to effect the change she earnestly argues for in A Problem From Hell and elsewhere – even if that means softening her speech while sharpening her knives.
After reading this book, I’d drop what I’m doing in a heartbreak to work with her from the inside, which should be all that you need to know to go pick it up.
*Full disclosure: while I am temperamentally much more comfortable in the latter group – of realists and cynics, agitators and disruptors – in this case I think it’d be really dumb to do anything but side with Power.
**Lemkin is also a good reminder that Great Men of History aren’t always viewed that way during their lifetime: “Lemkin had coined the word ‘genocide.’ He had helped draft a treaty designed to outlaw it. And he had seen the law rejected by the world’s most powerful nation. Seven people attended Lemkin’s funeral.”