Problems from Hell

The political crises now brewing in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia do not just threaten to unleash enormous violence and fuel chronic instability. In the absence of effective international actors and institutions, they could also prove to be irresolvable.

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In her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power condemned the United States’ failure to intervene to prevent or halt some of the twentieth century’s worst mass atrocities. But, as Power herself would later find out when she served as US Ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration, intervention is rarely a straightforward choice. Today, as growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula threaten to plunge the region into turmoil, that lesson looms larger than ever.

In her book, Power captured the destructive dynamics that are often set in motion when national or religious chauvinism and state failure coincide. Her title borrows from Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State during the post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. “The hatred between all three groups – the Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croatians – is almost unbelievable,” Christopher said. “It’s almost terrifying, and it’s centuries old. That really is a problem from hell.”

During periods of rapid technological and economic development, the atavistic impulses underlying such problems can seem anachronistic. “History” may feel as though it is finally giving way to “progress” – an ideal that is incompatible with wholesale bloodletting, forcible depopulation, and refugee crises. But, as Power reminds us, there are two reasons why the mantra of “never again” has been impossible to realize: the deep roots of past conflicts often remain just below the surface; and humans have an innate capacity for hatred, discord, and violence. Thus, in a 2002 commentary for Project Syndicate, Power warned against complacency: “if history is any predictor,” she wrote, “another eruption” of mass brutality would be forthcoming.

Fifteen years on, with untold horrors being inflicted on populations from Syria to South Sudan, Power’s warning has proved horrifyingly prescient. Indeed, many Project Syndicate commentators worry that the road to hell is being paved – with good intentions or bad, or with no discernible purpose at all – in an increasing number of places, including, most alarmingly, a setting in which a nuclear catastrophe is a real possibility. And, as these commentators show, a common accelerant of conflict worldwide has emerged: the deepening dysfunction of national and international institutions.