About Samantha Power
An Interview with Samantha Power
More About Samantha Power
Samantha Power is the Anna Lindh Professor of Global Leadership and Public Policy Practice at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a foreign policy columnist at Time magazine.
In 2003, her book, A Problem from Hell: American and the Age of Genocide, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction, the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, and the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Prize for the best book in U.S. foreign policy. Her latest book is Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (Penguin, 2008).
Q. What made you decide to write about Sergio Vieira de Mello?
A. In my travels in the United States and abroad in the last few years, I have found people hungering for insights on how their governments should respond to global challenges like terrorism, civil war, genocide, and extreme poverty. They believe that their fates are linked to those of others around the world, but they are overwhelmed—and sometimes paralyzed—by the messiness of what confronts them in the newspaper every morning. Sergio, whom I knew in Bosnia, seemed the one global figure who had the experience, the charm, and the hard-won wisdom both to sustain public interest and to offer guidance on how to manage broken people and broken places. Since he began traveling to violent places at a young age with no experience, but evolved into one of the most trusted diplomats and trouble-shooters in the world, I thought maybe my readers could learn as he learned. He had a thirty-five year head start asking very difficult questions, but this gave him the capacity to perhaps spare us from making his mistakes.
Q. A Problem from Hell, your first book, won a Pulitzer Prize, among others, and garnered much critical acclaim. How has that changed things for you?
A. I have enjoyed such a personal connection to the readers of A Problem from Hell that for a long time I was afraid I would inevitably disappoint them with whatever I wrote next. Young people in particular were so intensely determined to apply the lessons of A Problem from Hell that I also felt guilty that I wasn’t working with them every single day to build the powerful, anti-genocide constituency that is needed. So initially, I guess the critical success of my last book gave me anxiety that I wouldn’t contribute anything so meaningful again and guilt that I wasn’t helping lead the charge to change governmental responses to mass atrocity.
At some point along the way, though, I got out of my head and focused on doing justice to Sergio’s incredible story. I realized that, if the book could capture the lessons of his life, it could assist those doing anti-genocide work, while also possibly introducing a whole new group of readers to the kinds of shifts in our thinking and in our policies that will be needed to make the planet more safe and stable.
Q. Sergio Vieira de Mello’s career with the United Nations spanned almost thirty-five years. Although Chasing the Flame offers a richly detailed look at Vieira de Mello’s entire career, the last third of the book is devoted solely to the year or so that preceded his death. Why did you decide to dedicate so much of your work to this relatively brief period?
A. Since Iraq was the last mission of Sergio’s life, it was the place where he probably had the most insight to offer. By the time he landed in Baghdad in 2003, he had worked in a dozen conflict or post-conflict situations—Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and East Timor. Yet because Paul Bremer’s U.S.-led Coalition (and not the UN) was governing Iraq at the time of his deployment, Sergio had almost no formal power. While he offered the UN’s help in planning elections, training police, establishing an independent judiciary, settling property disputes, facilitating refugee returns, and reintegrating Iraqi army officers into society, Bremer and the Bush administration took very little of his advice.
Iraq is perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy. It is a war whose strategic, economic, and human consequences will be felt for decades. I felt that the least we could do at this stage is learn absolutely everything we could about what might have been done differently not for the sake of re-litigating the past but for the sake of applying the lessons Sergio had to offer to future conflict areas.
Q. You knew Vieira de Mello personally, though you tell his story principally through the accounts of those who worked with him more closely. Did your personal knowledge of Vieira de Mello complicate or facilitate your task as his biographer?
A. Honestly, the man I now know after 4 years and some 400 interviews with people on just about every continent on the globe — bears very little resemblance to the man I thought I knew in the Balkans in the 1990s. They had some of the same qualities certainly: razor-sharp wit, a seemingly genuine regard for individuals (as distinct from abstract “human rights”), intense professional ambition, great personal courage, and widely-hailed negotiating gifts. But the Sergio I now know had a vastly more varied background than I understood (he would never have mentioned he had not one but two doctorates from the Sorbonne); he was more self-critical than I would have imagined; he was more capable of conducting in-depth policy analysis on the fly than I would have thought any crisis-manager capable; he was more conscientious than I thought (I would not have dreamed he would maintain contacts with his drivers and house-cleaners years after his missions); and in the end he was probably also lonelier and more insecure than he let on (having played up his love for women his whole life, it was only at the end of his life that he began to confess his fears — of ageing, of dying, of being alone).
Q. Chasing the Flame — can you explain the significance of the title?
A. The title has two meanings for me. First, in his professional choices, Sergio was like a moth to the flame of war. He hungered to be wherever he could find “the action.” Some people considered him a “cowboy.” Others might have labeled him an “adrenalin junkie” or a “war junkie.” I don’t think these labels do him justice. He certainly got a charge out of being in places where the stakes were high. He was fascinated by evil-doers like the Khmer Rouge or the Rwandan genocidaires. And he did not hesitate to take personal risks if he felt his presence would make a difference (e.g., the Cambodian jungle, the Bosnian safe area of Gorazde, or Baghdad itself). But I think his desire to work amid the flames—on the most pressing humanitarian challenges of our time—testified to a belief (and, by the end of his life, a frustration) that he was the best man for the job, and that he stood higher odds of negotiating humanitarian access, resolving border disputes, mollifying tempers, etc. than any one else.
Second, Sergio was an idealist. He was a Machiavellian idealist, sometimes prepared to use ruthless tactics to pursue what he thought were noble ends, but he was, still, an idealist. Not long before he deployed to Iraq, when he was working as UN Human Rights Commissioner in Geneva, Sergio told Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker that UN office jobs had an unfortunate knack for “killing the flame” of idealism that burned bright in those aspired to be in public service. That flame burned in Sergio from the time he was a young man riding his bicycle through the streets of Rio de Janeiro during the military coup of 1964. It burned in him in Paris during the student riots of 1968. It burned in him when he joined the UN and followed his mentor Thomas Jamieson around like a puppy. And it burned in him when he wrote his doctorates on the importance of creating a philosophy that would motivate human improvement and a democratic peace. The UN Charter contained in it the ideals that Sergio hoped to see states respect and citizens enjoy. But as he got older, while he acquired political savvy and an understanding of how to navigate the system, he did not grow more confident that his ideals would be realized. In that sense, while his life is the embodiment of his deepest beliefs, he died still pursuing, or chasing, the flame.
Q. How many interviews did you do for this book?
A. I conducted around 400 interviews with Sergio’s colleagues, family-members, and friends. I also traveled to many of the places Sergio worked, such as Geneva, Sudan, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and East Timor.
Q. What do you consider to be the strongest points of Vieira de Mello’s character? And, conversely, what would you identify as his most besetting flaw?
A. My favorite trait of his; and one we can all learn from — was his intense regard for individuals. He noticed individuals of all classes, professions, and nationalities. This was evident in his willingness to circumvent UN rules to smuggle Sarajevans out of the city in his car, his effort to help find the nephew of the Kosovar cleaning lady at UN Headquarters in New York, his conscientiousness with the family of Leonard Manning, the first UN peacekeeper killed in East Timor, and countless other cases. Another strength, which he developed later in his career, was his capacity for self-scrutiny and his willingness to alter course if his plans were not working. He was far more pragmatic than ideological, and if he found something wasn’t bringing about the improvements he hoped for, he was prepared to alter course. This is surprisingly rare, and especially rare in large institutions.
I suppose his obvious flaw was his weakness as a husband and a father. He was immensely restless and seemed to need to keep in constant motion. Professionally, this meant moving from one challenging mission to the next. Personally, it meant rarely remaining still at home, putting his career first and, I suppose, often putting the welfare of other families’ ahead of his own. Most of the girlfriends he had outside his marriage—to whom he never committed—had surprisingly positive things to say about him, as he was generally upfront about his insistence on staying in his marriage and they did not feel misled. But that said, there is no question that a man who did a great deal to ease suffering in his professional life caused considerable suffering in his personal life.
Q. More than four years have now gone by since Vieira de Mello was killed. How do you think subsequent events, in Iraq and elsewhere, may have been shaped by his absence?
A. I don’t think Sergio or the UN could have “saved” Iraq. The Bush administration had made too many decisions that contributed to the collapse of the country that could not be reversed by the time of his arrival in Baghdad: bypassing the UN Security Council and inflaming anti-Americanism, muzzling dissent within the Bush administration so that only “yes men” remained, sending too few troops to control Iraq’s borders and too few police to maintain law and order, ignoring the planning that had been done by the State Department’s “Future of Iraq” project, shunning the expertise that lay within USAID and the UN system, issuing a holistic De-Bathification order that gutted Iraq’s most important ministries, demobilizing the Iraqi army, and failing to do any meaningful planning for the post-Saddam transition. These decisions made it very likely that Iraq would implode after the U.S. arrival.
But if Sergio had lived, he probably would have salvaged what could have yet been salvaged. He could have eventually prevailed on the Americans to reverse their worst decisions, and he might have convinced skeptical governments in the UN to contribute more resources to aid in reconstruction or even policing. Sergio could not have saved Iraq, but he could have helped it. But the only time he might have done that was when the Americans were ready to listen to him, which they were not ready to do in the summer of 2003.
Q. The United States has traditionally been quite skeptical about the ability of the United Nations to exert a favorable influence on world events. What, in your view, have been the fallacies of America’s perception of the UN, and how does this perception need to change in order to create a more effective UN and a safer, more stable world?
A. The key to UN reform is giving Americans a clearer picture of what the UN is and what it isn’t, what it can be and what it can’t be. The UN is largely a collection of states, so if you want to throw blame around - and lord knows there is plenty of blame to be thrown around—the best place to lay the blame is with the governments who make decisions that undermine peacekeeping missions, fail to sanction abusive governments, underfund AIDS care, etc. In other words much of what one sees playing itself out through the UN is a symptom of geopolitical dynamics that need to be altered or political priorities that need to be shifted.
I hope that Sergio can serve as a new face for the UN with the American public. But I also hope he helps us understand what can be fixed in New York, by UN bureaucrats, and what has to be fixed by powerful governments. The UN Secretariat can hire better staff and undertake management reform to get rid of some of the waste and sloth within the system, but the most lean and efficient UN in the world wouldn’t have prevented the Rwandan genocide or stopped the United States from going to war in Iraq. For that to happen world leaders are going to have alter their foreign policies, and that requires their citizens to pressure them to do so.
Q. Your closing recommendation of “Complexity, Humility, and Patience” as three qualities necessary in managing international social and political conflict seem almost the antithesis of the values that are currently expressed in American foreign policy. How do you think one begins to reverse the trend of simplification, arrogance, and impulsiveness that many of us have found so troubling?
A. Well, Iraq has served up a great reality check for many Americans. The average U.S. voter probably has a greater appreciation of the need for humility and the need for multinational support to deal with transnational threats like global warming, terrorism, proliferation, disease pandemics, and refugee flows than he or she had before the Iraq war. I think Americans generally see now that military force can not be the only tool in the U.S. tool box. I think they see that problems that span the globe or can spread across the globe are not ones that a single country—even one as powerful as the United States—can handle alone. What Americans are probably less prepared for are the sacrifices—in terms of resources and behavior—that we will have to make in order to tackle these problems. After Iraq and Katrina, Americans see our government as more fallible than we have in some time, but I don’t think that this crisis of confidence has translated into patience. We see that the problems facing us are complex, but we still want quick solutions. I don’t blame Americans outside of Washington for this disconnect. I believe our political leaders have failed to level with the American people about just how much will be required of them if we are to make a dent in facing these challenges. Improving fuel efficiency or getting out of Iraq are tempting short-term fixes, but our leaders haven’t dared to broach the depth and difficulty of the compromises we must learn to make in the 21st century. Maybe this book—or the lessons of Sergio’s life — can play a small role in sparking that overdue conversation.
Q. How does your work as a writer and a journalist correspond with your position as a foreign policy advisor for Senator Obama during his presidential campaign? How did you meet up with him?
A. Obama reached out to me soon after he entered the U.S. Senate in 2005 and asked if I would meet with him to discuss how the United States might build a “tough, smart and humane foreign policy.” He had a sense that foreign policy needed fixing, and he was reaching out to dozens of people from all walks to help him think through how it might be fixed. Our first meeting was supposed to last an hour but stretched well into the evening. As we entered our fourth hour, and I realized the kind of man I had encountered, I heard myself saying, “Why don’t I leave Harvard and move to Washington to work with you in your Senate office?” The next thing I knew I had abandoned my Red Sox tickets and moved to a town that isn’t my favorite, to work with the junior senator from Illinois. When he called me to tell me he was running for President, I was thrilled that the country would be exposed to what I had experienced for a couple years. And while I could say lots about working on his presidential campaign, let me just say here that it is probably the most gratifying thing I have done in my career. It is the first time I have really worked as part of a team, and the people who are drawn to him share his disdain for ideology and appreciation for fresh thinking. The camaraderie and intellectual fire power that I get to experience every day have made me wonder why I ever became a solitary writer!
Q. What’s next for you?
A. Hopefully, Barack will be selected as the Democratic nominee, and I will get to work full-time until November 2008 to try to help him get elected to the White House. As I write in the acknowledgments, Barack bears an uncanny resemblance to Sergio in terms of both his rigor and his compassion. So if readers are taken by Sergio, and devastated by the loss of a person of his talents, they might take some consolation from the fact that Barack Obama is very much with us and only beginning to make his impact felt on this country and the world.
Q. After the death of Vieira de Mello, Secretary General Kofi Annan lamented that there was “only one Sergio.” At Harvard’s Kennedy School, you are involved in educating some of the people who will have to take Vieira de Mello’s place. What, in your view, would be the best training and education for someone who desires to follow in Sergio’s footsteps?
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A. Since 9/11, there has been a huge leap in people wanting to get personally involved in public service and international affairs. One of the many tragedies of the Iraq war was that only one segment of our society—soldiers and their families—have yet been summoned to duty. I think Sergio’s life is instructive because it can introduce readers to the vast array of problems out there that need tackling. For young people, I hope it inspires a hunger to learn foreign languages and to spend time overseas volunteering for a church, a medical clinic, or a non-governmental organization. For older people with well-honed skills, I hope it inspires a desire to inject their wisdom into the public sector in some fashion, whether part-time or full-time. I don’t think people who read this book and want to follow the “Sergio principles” need to go back to school or go overseas in order to channel that impulse. They could tutor after school or spend time offering care to a returning war veteran; they could partner with a refugee family from Iraq or Haiti; they could educate themselves about a particular domestic or international challenge and call their state senator or U.S. Senator to try to increase policy attention toward it; they could write a check to an organization working on a cause that moves them or join the board of such an organization and get involved in improving the group’s effectiveness. A surprising number of people long to make a difference, but a) don’t know how, or b) know how, but don’t believe it can make a difference. Yet an even more surprising number of people don’t explore the opportunities (or the potential impact) before assuming there is no role they can usefully play. I’m hoping Sergio’s story will remind people of the scale of suffering that is out there, but also of the range of ways one can be useful in addressing harms—at home and abroad.
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