Samantha Power was kind enough to grant the creators of this site an interview in April 2005. This is a transcript of that interview.

What people or events in your childhood led you to pursue the career that you did?

Well I guess I'm still trying to figure out what my career is, all these years later. But I think because I was Irish-born, and lived for the first nine years of my life with my family in Ireland, I probably always had an eye to things international. You know, I was always looking a little bit over my shoulder, and thinking about, not even about the world, but I was thinking about Ireland a lot, when I was a teenager. And then I became very interested in sports, of all things, and I was obviously not going to become a professional athlete myself, so decided at one point to become a sports journalist, and began doing radio, college radio, did a little bit in high school and then did college radio and then had a radio, a sports talk show, and then covered the Yale men's basketball team and the women's volleyball team, and so that's how I kind of learned how to write and to write on deadline. And then, this isn't my childhood of course, but after I graduated from college, I was really struck by those images of men behind barbed wire in Europe, you know, out of the concentration camps. So at that point I guess my childhood interest in things international combined with my comfort writing (it was really the only skill I had) so it made me say well God, I want to do something about this, so let me go over there. The other thing I would say is my mother just has been immensely influential to me. Less in terms of journalism but she’s just one of these people who never thinks that she can’t do anything, and so when I felt powerless in the face of the suffering in Bosnia, it was very natural, it’s what m family does. If you have an idea then you just go do it. I wasn’t preparing to risk my life but I was certainly willing to risk showing up in a country I didn’t know and just make my way.

What is it like to be an American journalist abroad?

It varies, but in Bosnia in the beginning of the war there we were welcomed, as journalists in general and American journalists in particular, because we were the source of great hope for people. We could just tell the story of what was happening. It could be broadcast back and written about, and it was the convictions of the people that policy makers would have to do something because how could they not? But the reality was, we wrote endlessly about what was happening and nobody did anything much, so by the end of the time there it was almost kind of embarrassing to be an American journalist. In Darfur, where I just was, it’s very similar. On the one hand an incredible enthusiasm even at the time when America was very mistrusted or hated, but a sense that America is the answer and yet such a disillusion that, now I’ve been there twice, already to see the disappointment is palpable, for those people and what we haven’t done. Those are places that people need rescue. When I think about traveling to Israel and traveling to Palestine and other place in the Middle East the attitude is very different; sometimes people just interrogate you—why is your government this way, why is it being so uncritical of oppressive regimes? So you end up not at all defending the policy but by explaining it, you’re sometimes in a position, you sometimes become the spokesperson for George Bush; when did that happen? [LAUGHS]

Being in Bosnia

So after I reoriented myself, I graduated from college in 1992, a long, long time ago, and by pure coincidence, just before I graduated, the war in Bosnia was starting. [In A Problem From Hell], there's this terrible photograph of these emaciated men behind barbed wire. And if you didn’t look at the caption, you wouldn’t know if it was from [the Holocaust] or from the 1990s. It was again bone-thin men peering out from behind barbed wire in concentration camps in Europe. And unlike three years before where I had been working at CBS Sports and had no freedom of movement and no money, I had worked for about six months after I graduated and had saved up enough money, and I said, well now, I’m in a position to be free. I have no commitments in this country, and I could just go and try to do something, which I couldn't do a few years before.

The problem was, I had no skills, but the place where I was working was actually in this town for an amazing guy named Mort Abramowitz, who was a career foreign service officer. He’d worked for the U.S. government and managed to maintain a sense of outrage 35 years into working for the government—like actually retained the ability to be surprised, which is an amazing thing. He was running a think-tank here, and I was just his assistant, his coffee-pourer, et cetera. But his office happened to be in the same building as U.S. New and World Report. So just as I happened to be taking notes during that awful massacre, and happened to be able to see the revolution, the democratic revolution get crushed before my very eyes. I just coincidentally happened to be working for somebody who was in the building of a major magazine at that time. So I was like, look, I'd gone to NGOs, tried to get a job feeding people, building things, but I can hardly work my T-bone, so it was manifest that I had nothing to offer to any of these organizations.

But I thought, I can write, and many of us can’t. It’s a great thing to work on by the way, it’s like the best skill. Everybody talks about all the skills you need to get. If you can just learn how to write—really work on your writing—you can get a job in almost any industry, it turns out. Or so I thought. So I showed up, and I knocked on the door. I said, “I'm Samantha Power, I work upstairs, and I'd like to go cover the war in Bosnia for you.” And the guy’s like, “What?” And I said, “Bosnia. You know the concentration camps, the emaciated men behind barbed wire, in Europe, a-gain!” And he said, “OK, you just want to go be a war correspondent.” I said, “Well, no, I don’t actually want to be a war correspondent, but I think that might be the only thing I can do. I want those skinny people not to be in concentration camps, in Europe, a-gain! Fifty years later.” And he said, “Well what writing experience do you have?” And I said, “Well, I’ve covered the Yale women’s volleyball team.” And that didn't work. So I ended up having to go over there, as one does, and it turns out it was very easy to break into the business.

I became a correspondent there, thinking that was a way to make a difference, or to try, that if people only knew, things would be so very different. But in the wake of the Holocaust, people said the same thing, if we’d only known, but it turns out information was readily available to people who chose to know. So my original conceit going over there was that information was a problem, that information was something that people needed. But when I got there and lived there for two years, I realized that even though I was part of this group of people who were really trying to get the story out, it wasn’t that people in this town didn’t know the story that was stopping them from doing anything.

So living in Bosnia was totally surreal. It was much worse than shot-cheating a Braves game and seeing Tiananmen, because you would actually make friends with people to whom you had to explain why your government—your world—wasn’t helping. That was a very, very strange experience especially because NATO planes were flying overhead every day, because we were involved in Bosnia. We America, we the world, were involved enough that we really wanted to know what was going on every day. We were paying careful attention lest the conflict actually come to affect our national interests, so we were involved just enough to create this tantalizing promise that we might come and help these people. But it was just a tease, in a way. Until it wasn’t, and eventually, three and a half years into the war, there was an intervention, which we can talk about.

What was it like in Bosnia?

It was dangerous, it was scary. Especially in Sarajevo, it was different than in Iraq where western journalists are the targets. I didn’t have that feeling in Bosnia, but I did feel that we were as likely as civilians to be shot by shell fire and it was scary. But it was inspiring that communities banded together. The only way to survive was to act through incredible solidarity. It was both wearing and inspiring at the same time.

How emotionally taxing is it to be in such a situation where you know that you could get hurt but it’s worth being there?

Don’t get me wrong, fear is a crucial part of what I feel in most of these places. But I think, and maybe I’m kidding myself, that the most emotionally taxing part of it is to feel that you’re not able to do anything for anybody. Once you’ve decided to go into the place, you have to block out the danger, and you’re always looking and you try not to be foolhardy about how you operate. Take as many precautions as possible and are careful within it, so you’re thinking about the fear and the danger all the time. But the bigger issue is just, you kind of hate yourself, because here I am, asking these people to relive the suffering and the horror and what am I doing for them? And I think that’s very draining. But again, even that you can just sort of decide that hopefully you’ll eventually make a difference and you can just block it out but those concerns hit more often than the outright fear.

You’ve already said in your book that America has failed in preventing genocide. How do you think the UN has failed in other ways, besides the way America has failed on its own?

That’s a good way to frame the question actually, because of course the UN is two things: it’s both an actor in and of itself and it’s really just a stage for states to be states, for the US to be the US and I think people too often talk about the UN failure in Rwanda, and the UN failure in Srebrenica. I think that the UN (and by the UN I mean the secretary general and his team) has done badly is that they’ve not used the moral authority of what comes from not being a state. So on Darfur, Kofi doesn’t have troops, he doesn’t have money, but he has the pulpit. He could be talking about Darfur and he could be summoning foreign ministers to meetings to try to mobilize a political coalition, getting the African Union the equipment and the training they need. And whether the UN people are right, whether they have so much less power than states, they have a different kind of power and I think they should use it as often as they should.

How would you define genocide? When do you know that a conflict has escalated to that level?

don't think there's any on-off switch. I think once we're having the discussion, chances are there are already ten thousand things we should be doing. So basically when a perpetrator or one party tries to destroy physical infrastructure, physical life, tries to destroy biological life, and tries to degrade women and others, and basically to erode the sense of community that pervades in so many cultures. So some combination of extermination and cultural destruction seems to me constitute genocide. I wouldn't say that only Rwanda and the Holocaust are genocide. Usually you can destroy a group meaningfully within a territory by murdering only a small fraction. You don't have to murder everyone. If you murder all the intellectuals, or if you kill all the men, like in Bosnia and Srebrenica, you can do grave damage to the group as a whole, so I think you see those kinds of tactics used more often. An attempt to destroy a group through killing, rape, and physical destruction. I think reasonable people can disagree about when that line has been crossed, but by no means do we have the right to stand by if it's "merely ethnic cleansing." To me, all these crimes should command real attention, which doesn't mean military force. I think your level of intervention should increase commensurate with the nature of the violence. As much as I wrote a book about American responses to genocide, I don't think having the category is all that constructive, actually. It might have been in the early years when Lemkin and others were trying to build a constituency for genocide prevention, but now I just think it interferes and has us debating whether it's a genocide or not. I mean, who cares, you know? Again, if there's mass murder, rape, and the destruction of property and life, that's really all we need to know.

Would you support the use of the term even in one of these borderline situations to promote public awareness and action that might not be taken otherwise, because the g-word has so much force now that there's this distinct barrier.

No, it's a great question. Maybe I've become too old in my old age, or too cynical, but I don't think the g-word actually has the force. I mean I think Darfur is the proof that it doesn't really have the force. People bend over backwards to avoid the use of the word and then it turns out you can just use the word, nobody does anything, and there's no cost—no legal cost and no political cost. In terms of the question, though, would I advocate the use of the term. On Darfur I was very hesitant, surprisingly so, because I got a lot of criticism for being hesitant, but I was pretty sure that if we used the term that we would then spend somewhere around six months debating whether the term's use was appropriate, because Darfur is just different enough from Rwanda that it's going to cause controversy. The Arab states, the African states, they're not going to say that it's genocide. They're going to say it's ethnic cleansing, and they're not even going to say it's ethnic cleansing, most of them. They're not even saying that the government is doing anything wrong, so how are we going to get them to use "genocide"? And so why litigate that? It just seemed like causing moths to come to the flame. And sure enough, Colin Powell used it in September, and we're now in April. Almost nothing has happened between September and April, nothing, except another debate about a commission investigating whether it's genocide. Who cares? People are dying, you know?

So what do you think we could do to make people care about Darfur, and do something about it?

I think students care. Harvard students are pressuring Larry Summers to divest from PetroChina, which is one of the big investors and exploiters of Sudanese oil. I think that's going to happen, so that's something that can be done, is you create a cost for companies operating in societies like that. The African Union force needs to be quadrupled, quintupled, and needs to be strengthened with training and equipment. That is something that we need to make happen by getting our congresspeople to allocate the funds for that kind of ramp-up but the United States (partly because it's over-stretched, partly because it has a legitimacy problem, and partly because other countries are very cynical) isn't having much of an effect on other people and so one of the challenges now being an engaged American on these issues is what do we do about other countries? How do we get countries to contribute troops to the African Union force, not just us to give money, but other people, not just us to give lift. So I think that's an issue right now. This group of Swarthmore students, called the Genocide Intervention Fund, which they've created, and it's meant to raise a million dollars for the African Union force. The million dollars itself isn't so important, but the political signal it sends that a group of kids can raise this kind of money and do more than the US government for the AU, that's the kind of thing that's a pretty good thing to do.

Talking more about moral obligation, you talked about the government and what people as a whole can do. What do you think that high school students like us, what could we do since we're interested in learning about this and helping? There are charities that we could donate to, but it's difficult to donate to charities; everybody's always worried about doing that because you don't know exactly where the money's going.

i think, from Save Darfur... I see you have a bracelet, that's a Darfur bracelet, right? I mean what's wrong with trying to raise money for the bracelets like in the way that people did for cancer? I think writing your Congresspeople; it sounds so hokey, but getting an entire community, getting a school or getting a class, it's just the beginning. But communicating the school's interests, and your parents, and getting other people to call, you really can make a difference. And then there are specific NGOs that I would say I really trust, like Doctors Without Borders, a really good NGO in terms of really feeding people and trying to protect people in the camps. Teaming up with these Genocide Intervention Fund people and seeing what they need, protests are needed, getting involved. There is a student network at the university level, maybe one could be developed at the high school level. There's a lot, but tapping into the networks that exist would be great, so I would say SaveDarfur.org, and this Genocide Intervention Fund. Then you could be part of a broader conversation about what to do. And by the way, the week of the eleven year anniversary of Rwanda is April 4th, and Harvard is just going to have Darfur event after Darfur event. We're going to have films, and panels on justice, and panels on the African Union. We're hoping to have a Genocide Intervention Fund discussion, and then there would be an advocacy workshop, so maybe you guys could tap into that and come to the advocacy workshop, I think it would be a great experience at a minimum.

Some of it's going to be lost along the way, no matter how much effort you make, but I think it's better than doing nothing. Some of it's got to get through.

I tell you, there's so much silence on issues like this, I think my book shows, just noise, communicating, whatever one thinks about the use of the word "genocide," it would never have happened if it weren't for the protests. It was all about political motion, and getting the Congress to... and then the Bush administration... it really was shame. So now we just need to take it to the next level and have them do more.

Do you believe that genocide is preventable?

I have to say I don't spend all that much time thinking about a world without genocide. I just assume that people are always going to do bad things to each other and that the conditions are always going to arise. But yeah, I think if you had unlimited resources and you were willing, states and individuals, were willing to make sacrifices. Look at Macedonia, they deployed from five to ten thousand peacekeepers to prevent the conflict in the Balkans from spreading there, no war in Macedonia. It's still very fragile, but when you're willing to make those kinds of investments and commitments, things happen. If we were willing to invest in AIDs prevention and treatment at the necessary level—literacy programs, conflict prevention, exercises—I think things would change.

What effect do you think your book, your articles, your class have had on the Harvard community, Boston, America, the world?

[LAUGHS] Well I think that policy makers in Washington, when they're in meetings and they're writing memos, I think they're a little more self-conscious that they might be remembered for what they do. I think also the use of the word genocide was partly related to this; not my book as such, but this idea that you would be accountable, so if you sort of danced around the use of the word, that you'd get into trouble historically, so I think that that's an impact. I think people like you are trying to make noise. I think there's a sense that—okay we know from history that we can't rely on our policy makers to take this stuff seriously on their own, we've got to somehow push the issue, force the issue, so I think that's certainly an impact. Time magazine ridiculously named me last year one of the world's hundred most influential people, and I said at the dinner the test of my influence is Darfur. This is ridiculous, I'm totally honored, and thank you, but this is absurd. Like Darfur, Darfur, Darfur. And I really, I agree with that now. It would have been very interesting to see what would have happened if you'd had no 9/11, and my book, and other books, and other commemorative efforts. I think we were starting to learn a little bit—Kosovo intervention, East Timor, British in Sierra Leone—there were things that were happening in '99 and 2000. Nobody was ever doing it eagerly, and we would have always had to fight the fight on Capitol Hill for the resources, but there was a sense that these things were doable, and that with leadership you could really make a difference. On the one hand, now it's easier to make arguments about human rights, because Bush is linking terrorism to failed states and democracy deficits and so on, but on the other, in terms of resources, there's just very little out there, and our legitimacy has been so eroded as a country that there's a leadership vacuum. In terms of Harvard, I'm struck here that people seem to think that I'm... I don't know, I can't exactly describe it, but sort of better known outside the Harvard community than I actually am. The book obviously was very celebrated, which is amazing. But it's not a book that that many people have actually read, which is a source I must say of considerable frustration for me, because I really think if you haven't read the book, you don't know what I'm up to actually. You could summarize and say oh, it's about how America never does anything about genocide, but the story is much more complicated than that. It really is a book about the nature of bureaucracy, the nature of individual responsibility in democracy, the role of the U.S. in the world more generally, and specifically as individuals whether single individuals can made a difference within systems, and these are lessons that to me have broader ramifications than just genocide. Genocide is a huge issue and I care a lot about it, but I care just as much about American foreign policy, and our role in the world, and on that score, it seems like we could use a little more reading [LAUGHS] of late.

What do you want your students to get out of your class here, and what do you think of your role as a writer, and an activist, and a professor here?

I teach two classes this term, U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights is the big class and then I teach a seminar on the U.N. I just want to move away from ideology and get at individuals and systems and how they can be brought to bear to ameliorate human suffering, at home as well as abroad. So I'm trying to get them to think much more critically about what the U.S. even means, like are we talking about the Congress, are we talking about the State Department, are we talking about the Pentagon, are we talking about a bureau within the State Department, to think more critically about what the U.N. means. Are we talking about the Secretary General or the Security Counsel powers, and just to move into systems and to think about incentive structures and how they might be transformed to increase the odds that we will keep an eye out for human suffering in a way that we haven't. What was the second? Oh, the activist, academic. Yeah that I don't struggle with that that much any more. I think I have the right balance. I used to feel like a phony in academic settings, because I didn't feel like a scholar, and I felt like a nerd as a journalist, because all I wanted to do was go home and read Kant, or whoever, but now I feel like it's the right thing. I feel I'm the same in both settings. I'm just a person who starts with a question, and then actually believes that you should talk to people before you come up with the answer, and then recreating historical experiences and processes can give you a decent sense of how things should be fixed. Judging institutions from the outside, which is what we do here in the academy, more often than not, what activists do too, often just isn't all that constructive. So I think there’s this balance of getting out into the field, talking to people, being very empirical on the one hand, but coming back and really reflecting it and trying to move, not being ashamed of having a proactive agenda when it comes to the transformation of American foreign policy. It's working for me now. It didn't work for a long time, but I think I have a balance now, because I only teach here in the Spring, so it gives me eight or nine months a year to be out and about.

Just going back to Darfur again for a second. If the U.N. did actually finally label it as a genocide, how much do you think they would actually do, or how much do you think would change?

Nothing. I don't think anything would change. No, I think it's always going to come back to the same question of what does a specific state want to do. If Kofi Annan had troops or police or money, then that would be different. Then his decision would have consequences for him, but if a U.N. commission calls it genocide, you still have to go cup in hand back to the states and say do you want to send some peacekeepers, do you want to send some equipment, do you want to pay for this? It still really requires domestic activism to change national policies. I think that's what's really needed here.

If you were in our place, what would you say about yourself?

[LAUGHS] If I was in your place, what would I say about me?

How would you summarize what you've accomplished?

Oh what I've accomplished? Jesus.

 

And which is important?

I would say wow, there goes the queen of lost causes. But then the Red Sox won the World Series, and all lost causes seemed curable. I don't know what I would say. It's interesting, because when I was your age, I don't know who, apart from my mother, I was looking to for career guidance. It would have never dawned on me that there was a life like the one that has befallen me that was available to me, to be in an academic setting, to be a foreign correspondent, to be able to speak publicly about things that matter a great deal to me and that might even matter to other people. I just feel very lucky. So one of the things I guess to communicate is nothing that has happened to me, the platform that I've been able to carve out for myself, was by no means inevitable. I had a great difficulty getting my book published, and it really could have gone either way. I could not be sitting here, I could be a struggling freelancer; the same me, the same ideas and the same commitments, but without a break here and there. So I think it's just a lesson in perseverance. If you have a question, I think everything interesting starts with a question. Then occasionally a question gives rise to a vision, even in the small, one issue, a big vision, whatever, but I think you have to expect that people are going to get in your way, and just be willing to keep your eye on the prize.

Who's your favorite Red Sox player?

[LAUGHS] Now?

Yeah.

Well let me think about that. It was Pedro Martinez, but he's gone. It's actually a genuinely difficult question. It's either Tim Wakefield or David Ortiz. I have tremendous respect for Wakefield. When I moved from Ireland to America, I lived in Pittsburgh. My National League loyalty has always been to the Pirates, and so I have been following Wakefield since he first entered Major League baseball. And he was drafted as a hitter; again it's a lesson in perseverance. The guy couldn't cut it as a hitter, couldn't cut is as a pitcher, and so developed this way around the system, and that's exactly what I'm talking about in my work. You can't do it this way, you can't do it that way, you just have to find some way of playing in the Major Leagues.