Orange County School of the Arts

Samantha Power and “A Problem From Hell”

Most teenage girls read fun books about romance or flowers. But not me. A few months ago, I embarked on reading A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide by Ambassador Samantha Powers. (

sp done
A tough day at the Security Council. #JustAmbassadorThings


I use the word “embarked” because it’s a lengthy and heavy book, filled with brutally heart-wrenching descriptions of tragedies. The reason I read “A Problem from Hell” was not because I’m a terrible person who loves genocide; it’s because Samantha Power is #goals. (Oh yes, that hashtag is on purpose.)

Ambassador Power is the United States’ permanent ambassador to the United Nations. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, she’s established herself as an activist and scholar; a prominent voice supporting humanitarian intervention. A Problem From Hell won a Pulitzer Prize, and is certainly a “Magna Carta.” Ambassador Power spent six years writing the 516 pages and 70 pages of citations in A Problem From Hell.

Ambassador Power with President Obama

Powers presents some of the most compelling arguments for genocide intervention at the end of the book. She convincingly argues that intervention can prevent genocide in addition to saving innocent lives. But it’s important to remember that there are costs to genocide intervention—like the lives of soldiers, costs, the possibilities of forming new hostilities or accidentally training future terrorists.

Power is a very good writer; unfortunately, no writer can sugarcoat the evils of genocide. Ambassador Power writes with meticulous details, describing speeches, interviews, press releases, meetings, and communications in depth. Though I hesitate to criticize Ambassador Power’s expertise and hard work, I certainly have a few criticisms.

First of all, Ambassador Power is a strong proponent of military intervention; however, in my opinion, she does not adequately discuss the clear negatives. I kind of felt like I was reading a manifesto about why military intervention is the only solution to genocide. I’m no internal relations scholar, but I wish she had offered as-conclusive reviews on other methods of preventing genocide. And several chapters read kind of like a smear campaign against Warren Christopher, the secretary of state during Clinton administration. Yes, Secretary Christopher may have acted incorrectly, but I’m not sure he deserves the hatred he receives in the book.

power as war corespondent
Ambassador Power, a former Balkans war correspondent, has seen the horrifying effects of genocide close up.

These criticisms withstanding, I do not mean to slam Ambassador Power. She spent years writing Problem from Hell, and no matter what views you have, Problem introduces thought-provoking questions that any international policy lover needs to think about. For example, what quantity and quality of information do we need to justify action? During some crises, there’s often a shortage of information. So do we wait for more information, perhaps elevating a crisis? Or do we react immediately, which could prompt more issues?

Perhaps most jarring, any discussion of international policy will lead us to question what a life is worth. Powers argues that resistance to intervening with “boots on the ground” can be the result of the idea that an American life is worth more than another life.

power sgalmour
A Glamour photo shoot with Ambassador Power, in the Security Council

Many people replied with a questioning glance when I told about my reading choices. Yes, the violence in “Problem” might not be the best for bedtime reading. But I don’t think that censorship is the right solution. The violence in A Problem From Hell is real horror that has happened to millions people worldwide. It isn’t pretty, but it certainly exists.