Where are you from, and why there?
I was born in Syracuse, N.Y. I lived there only a couple years, then moved to Buffalo through Kindergarten, then Pittsburgh through junior high school, then Chicago through college. Actually, it was the same bedroom suburban community in all four cases, just increasingly far away from downtown as the cities got bigger. My father worked in coal traffic for the Pennsylvania Railroad, then the Penn Central, then Conrail. Back then, really before containerized shipping, freight rail moved two things, coal and everything else. The railroads kept failing, but Dad kept getting promoted, ending up retiring as Coal Sales Manager in Chicago. My mother died of stomach cancer when I was about 13, just after we moved to Chicago. I’m an only child, so Dad had to figure out single parenting in a hurry. His basic message was do what you want, but don’t screw up. I was very good at the former and not too bad at the latter. My senior year in high school, I managed to get myself elected to a three-year term on the school board. We had about 8,000 students in four high schools, which I mention not only because it’s a little-known cool fact about me, but also because it dictated my decision to go to college somewhere nearby. My very smart, sweet, and pretty high school girlfriend was going to Northwestern, which I thought might be a little too close to her for me, so I decided to go to the University of Chicago.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
My background is little magazines and daily journalism. I’ve always been a writer, even including poetry nowadays, but at heart I have an editor’s sensibility. There are two ways to look at that. One is that my intellectual curiosity is very broad; another is: “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Over more than a dozen years, I’ve had a chance to develop considerable expertise in the policy area of trying to improve our processes for preventing and responding to mass atrocities. Genocide and mass killing are the worst form politics takes—in essence, nothing other than the attempt to get your way by the extirpation of anyone you perceive to be blocking it. Some perpetrators even enjoy their work. This angers and disgusts me.
How did you get involved?
Twenty years or so ago, I decided to undertake a systematic investigation of my intuitive belief in human progress. I know, I know, that’s too long a story. But if there is such a thing as progress, then clearly, Rwanda and Bosnia were not examples of it. As the genocide was slow-rolling in Darfur in 2004, the influential Virginia congressman and human rights advocate Frank Wolf chartered the U.S. Institute of Peace to convene a 12-member bipartisan task force on United Nations reform, which was chaired by Newt Gingrich and George Mitchell. Wolf was especially concerned about what he perceived as the failure of the United Nations to deal effectively with Darfur. By contrivance, Ivo Daalder, Lee Feinstein, Joe Loconte, and I managed to assign ourselves as the task force working group staff for human rights, a section of the report both Gingrich and Mitchell were committed to making as robust as possible. Lee was also Mitchell’s de facto chief of staff for the project, and I had Gingrich’s ear. Also by contrivance, Anne-Marie Slaughter was the task force member devoted to the issue. Notwithstanding some resistance, the task force report managed to produce the first bipartisan endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect, an endorsement that proved to be a key element in the Bush administration’s agreement to the adoption of R2P at the United Nations World Summit in 2005. Our little traveling band also managed to arrange the breakthrough that allowed NATO to provide an assistance package to the African Union peacekeeping force on the ground in Darfur, but that’s another story.
What are the biggest challenges for the issue(s) today?
Well, the perpetrators and would-be perpetrators. Apart from them, I would say persuading people of the importance of prevention. We all know the adage that an ounce of it is worth a pound of cure. And I think everyone can get behind the proposition that the world can ill afford another Syria—which began, let’s recall, with atrocities. But turning this into the political will to try to get ahead of potential problems is difficult when everybody’s inbox is already overflowing. And when a crisis goes hot, inaction will always have its proponents. I would hope the lesson of Syria is the danger of the assumption that problems will take care of themselves and can be safely ignored. Policy options don’t necessarily improve over time. U.S. leadership is critical.
Who are your most frequent allies in your field?
I don’t want to name names beyond Lee Feinstein, my close friend and long-time collaborator in this area, because the minute I go past him, the list gets long and I’d end up accidentally leaving someone or some institution out by mistake. There are some outliers, but in general the people who work on this issue are generally very supportive of each other, which is a joy. I would make a broad general distinction between those who take a disinterested and critical view of policy and those who seek to influence policy for the better. My allies tend to be in the latter camp.
What drives you?
Why, my intuitive belief in human progress—along with the realization from long study of politics that progress is not automatic, that what is justifiable is the belief in the possibility of progress, and that unfortunately, if this is true now or was in 1989, then it was also true in 1934.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
Solidarity with all who have worked or will work to save lives and protect and extend freedom.