Michael Ignatieff's Surprising Habits

Canada's story-teller-at-large raises some provocative and truly global ideas in the Rights Revolution

By Andres Kahar

Michael Ignatieff has some surprising habits. And they seem to make many people uncomfortable, even angry.

You see, he has a habit of writing important books about tough and timely issues set in troubled places that are often far removed from his Western readership. And he says hard things that are bound to raise hackles. When he researches tough issues in troubled places, he actually spends time in those besieged zones and actually speaks with the people and political actors there.

You would think a clever fellow armed with a Harvard PhD and BBC accreditation could just parachute himself into the local Hilton for a couple of days, work the phone lines and do the rest from a comfortable office space. (Besides, what else is the Internet for?) But instead, in his coverage of the so-called zones of ethnic war (Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda and Afghanistan, to name a few), Ignatieff has told the story from an up-close-and-personal vantage point.

In doing so, he finds himself in a league with the best of this generation's storytellers: David Remnick, Anatol Lieven, David Rieff, Robert Kaplan and Thomas Goltz. They are all journalists who have combined storytelling techniques and academic inquiry. They leap beyond a mere rendering of the facts to an explanation of what is happening, contextualizingcomplicated events. They let Western readers know why an issue matters in the grand scheme of things. You may not always agree with what they write, but they are definitely worth reading closely because they have spent perilous time observing from the frontlines of history, going at storytelling like a body contact sport.

Michael Ignatieff has been sending ideas into the agora via newspapers, magazines, television documentaries and radio broadcasts. In subject matter, he has been doing the waterfront: ethnic nationalism (his well-known trilogy), biography (Isaiah Berlin), novels (Scar Tissue, Asya), movie screenplays (Onegin) and literary discussion (his TV interview show, Ignatieff).

Which leads us to his latest book and radio project, The Rights Revolution. Based on his Massey lectures for the year 2000, The Rights Revolution is Ignatieff's description of the ways in which rights - and, most profoundly, human rights - changed the ways Canadians and Westerners understand politics. His Massey lectures were recorded for CBC Radio last November and aired later that month. The lectures were also published in book form.

Post-Hobbesian Notions

This time the author's principal focus is on Canada, but he delves into some issues of global importance. One recurrent point raised in The Rights Revolution is that human rights are inherent in the idea of being human. Human rights actually supersede prevailing concepts of national citizenship and state authority. This relatively new, universal notion of human rights has expanded the boundaries of political community and created a "new culture of obligation." This means that the nation-state is no longer the be-all and end-all of global politics. In Ignatieff's optimistic words: "With each passing year, we get closer to a new dispensation in which the sovereign rights of states are conditional upon there being adequate protection for the basic human rights of citizens."

A massive change indeed. Since the seventeenth century, the dominant paradigm for understanding global politics has been state-centric. This is known as realism, and it outlines a Hobbesian world in which states ruthlessly compete in an anarchical state of nature. It's a world in which states cannot be held to moral standards. After all, in the state of nature, everyone acts according to the rough-and-tumble principle of self-interest.

Even today, this view of global politics tends to prevail among policymakers and scholars of international relations. Our political world is still a Hobbesian one carved out by self-interested nation-states and nations aspiring to become nation-states.

Witness Bosnia and Kosovo. Last decade's inter-ethnic bloodshed and wars in Balkans - familiar subject matter to readers of Ignatieff - served up horrifying images from the Hobbesian jungle. Or witness the Bush administration plans for national missile defense (NMD), which only feed to this worldview of rationalism and anarchy.

The Two Ignatieffs

Yet The Rights Revolution portrays another world. Ignatieff describes how emergent human rights regimes create extraterritorial relations between unprotected people (like those in the besieged zones he's visited) and people with the resources to help them (the Western audience he's addressing). This post-Hobbesian world is one of morals, not simply one of cold calculus.

Here Ignatieff returns to a familiar theme: humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Rwanda. Since some values can be taken as universal (for example, that murder, rape and lying are wrong), he suggests that one might be something "less than human" to ignore dire pleas from strangers for help. To drive the point home, Ignatieff employs the unsettling analogy of an individual choosing whether or not to intervene in a case of domestic violence in the apartment next-door.

The Massey lecturer doesn't take this point lightly either. He's sensitive to the possibility of rights talk being abused in the name of Clausewitz-style power politics or a disguised form of imperialism. Those were the concerns of some critics during NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999. However, in the final analysis, Ignatieff finds solace in the belief that rights are self-limiting-"all justification implies the possibility of rebuttal." He insists that human rights set limits on the use of force by virtue of the fact they cannot constitute an abstract morality. For every point in favor of humanitarian intervention, there will be a counterpoint warning of political and moral risks.

Such dove-like noises might raise eyebrows among Ignatieff's past critics-especially those who labeled him a "militarist" after last year's pro-NATO analysis of the war in Kosovo (see his book Virtual War).

On the face of it, Ignatieff's internationalist talk of extraterritorial obligation can sound confusing. After all, this is the same scholar who has argued in terms of the state's continued relevance in the much-vaunted era of globalization. This brings us to yet another one of his habits: nuanced thought. Such a habit can make anyone sound conflicted. (Dogmatic ideas tend to land with a more satisfying thump!)

Here's the problem. On one hand, The Rights Revolution shows Ignatieff as an idealist of sorts. At the same time, we already know Ignatieff the realist. The latter Ignatieff is a guy who asserts that military intervention may be necessary if we want to create more humane conditions for global politics. Is this a contradiction or what?

We can understand his logic by considering why realism has held sway among so many policymakers and academics. Like the paradigm or not, realism gains its credibility by showing us the relationship between concept and event. There is a real world out there, and sometimes it turns on hardbitten principles, not ideals. Once again, witness Bosnia. Witness the India-Pakistan nuclear arms race. Or witness saber-rattling over the Taiwanese Strait.

I can imagine that observing firsthand the devastating aftermath of Balkan, African and Central Asian wars would remind one that the world is not always as friendly as Canadians' experience at home. Out there, violence is a fact of life. Ignatieff knows that things don't work as they should, either at home or abroad. As he explains: "We're a long way from the ideal. But the ideal is not powerless either. And the ideal is that we try to live in a shared world based on right rather than might."

Normative Challenges

The Rights Revolution sees Ignatieff putting store in the power of norms and ideals. He sees value in establishing rules (human rights laws) and institutions (rights watchdog bodies) because these things place constraints on our thinking and behavior.

The author summons up Canada's so-called Clarity Bill -"the Canadian gamble; or is it a strange form of genius?" - as an example of normative constraint. He says that when Ottawa set the rules by which referenda on secession from Canada would be conducted, the politics and discourse of Quebec separation became more bounded.

An even better example of this is Ignatieff's allusion to the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the Baltic states. That is where Western diplomats and advisers - Canadian legal experts among them - have urged and helped Baltic policymakers to devise more liberal language legislation. This Western counsel was inspired by concerns for the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics.

Yet both examples lead us into a politico-cultural roadblock that the author has witnessed firsthand. Westerners may well export their rights talk to other regions and cultures, but are the local people listening? More to the point, is the rights talk being accepted by them? Or do rights simply become a crude policy instrument?

Michael Ignatieff is sensitive to the charge that human rights are often perceived by other cultures as foisting Western ideals on their way of doing things. He also knows there are often gaps between the historical stories of different peoples. That's the case with Quebec and English Canada. That's one of the factors dividing Kosovars and Serbs. Divergent worldviews can make it painfully difficult for different peoples to engage in politics according to universal rules or norms. Even the US Congress has frequent objections to global norms taking precedence over national legislation.

Conversely, in the Baltic states, much of the Western counsel has been implemented in political or legal form. But from the outside looking in, it's almost impossible to say whether the local lawmakers have been sold on the Western ideas or have simply followed the advice out of political pragmatism. Maybe the answer is both.

This theme brings us to Ignatieff's dogged faith in the democratic process. He knows that political consensus among peoples is forever elusive. But any quest for finality is a delusion. The ideal of a democratic process is to persuade people to enter deliberations and negotiations. This ideal applies to the myriad of identity groups and interests that coexist within Western democracies, to competing ethnic groups in distant lands, and to relations between Quebec and English Canada.

That said, Ignatieff is not deluding himself. He doubts that all gaps can be bridged. He also doubts that we'll ever see Quebec and English Canada share the same historical reality. But that's okay, he says. It's the normative ideal and the democratic process that really count, for "it's only when dialogue becomes frozen, when there's no movement, that rupture becomes likely."

A Global Story

The rights revolution described in Ignatieff's lectures is especially borne out by the growth of global civil society. This is the empowerment of non-state organizations working transnationally in the name of human rights, environmental causes, indigenous peoples, women's rights and democratic legitimacy. Indeed, these civil society groups often campaign for rights at the global level to change policy at the state level. Such action can alter the way average citizens define political legitimacy.

A timely illustration: the patchwork coalition of local activist groups set to demonstrate against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Quebec City in April. One of their chief arguments - that these global trade agreements imperil democratic legitimacy within states - recalls Ignatieff's point about the state's continued importance amid globalization.

Pro-free trade pundits like Jeffrey Simpson recite poll numbers in a bid to root free trade in a sense of political legitimacy (see Globe and Mail, February 12, 2000). And when the demonstrations take place, the demonstrators will doubtless be castigated for attempting to shut down a policy process. The activists have had none of it, though. As Ignatieff points up, the rights revolution has "widened the democratic conversation." Anything short of inclusion at the political table is deemed illegitimate by a growing number of people. This is the paradoxical feature of politics in the post-Hobbesian world Ignatieff describes: it's local and global at the same time.

But, alas, The Rights Revolution is a story without a complete and tidy ending. Ignatieff doesn't give a clear prognosis as to where this revolution is taking us. But that's the idea: there is no fixed end point. The process is the point. And, as Ignatieff reminds us, constant vigilance is necessary: "History shows there's nothing secure or unassailable about our rights heritage."

He's describing global politics: open-ended and rough going. Like any great storyteller, Michael Ignatieff is trying to explain where we're coming from and where we are today. We may consider for ourselves where we are headed.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001, page 18. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Andres Kahar here

Peace Magazine homepage