Iggy Pops: The Michael Ignatieff Experiment

By Smith, Jordan Michael | World Affairs, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview
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Iggy Pops: The Michael Ignatieff Experiment


Smith, Jordan Michael, World Affairs


When Michael Ignatieff resigned as leader of Canada's Liberals at a press conference in Toronto on May 3rd, members of his team were seen at the back of the room in tears. They were grieving not just for their party--which the previous day had suffered the worst defeat in its history, coming a first-ever third place in the federal election, behind not only their Conservative Party tormentors but also the left-wing New Democrats. They were grieving even more for the death of a dream, the sad end of a six-year experiment that they had once believed would conclude with a unique man, Ignatieff himself, pulling the sword of political governance out of the stone of political theory and coming to power in Canada as a contemporary philosopher-king.

The dream could be said to have been born in the autumn of 2005, when Joseph Nye Jr., then the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, was eating soup and sandwiches at Cambridge's Finale restaurant with Ignatieff, his star hire. The Canadian-born journalist-historian had proved a spectacular choice to head Harvard's new Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. In his four years there, Ignatieff had catapulted the center into prominence as an institution renowned for its policy-relevant scholarship. Among other things, Ignatieff and the Carr Center had overseen the work between human rights experts and military and intelligence officers that culminated in the US Army's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

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But Ignatieff had also proved controversial. In high-profile essays and books, he had become a premier theorist of progressive imperialism. By the time of his lunch with Nye, this doctrine, which envisioned American military power being used around the world to invade and rebuild states that committed gross human rights abuses, seemed largely discredited in the eyes of the American public. Instead of American empire being "in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike," as Ignatieff had written, the US had initiated a war that had taken hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and American lives and seemed to have no end.

But Ignatieff was not deterred by the waning popularity of his ideas. He was, in fact, taking this and all the rest of his intellectual armaments into the practical realm of electoral politics. Over lunch on that fall afternoon in 2005, Ignatieff told Nye that he was leaving the comfort of Harvard life to run for a seat in the Parliament of his native Canada.

High-level scholars frequently enter government, of course, in policy or advisory roles. Nye himself worked in the Carter and Clinton administrations. But to actually run for an elected position, with the hand-shaking and the baby-kissing and the door-knocking, is not the usual career path for intellectuals, although Harvard's own Daniel Patrick Moynihan had done it with considerable success, and figures such as Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru and of course Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic had grasped at the brass ring of power. But it seemed to some of his colleagues at Cambridge an eccentric maneuver on the part of Ignatieff, one of the world's most prominent thinkers, to relinquish one of the most prestigious spots at the most eminent American university to run for high office in a country where he had not lived for nearly thirty years. Yet here Ignatieff was, on his way home to Canada.

Joseph Nye himself, however, said he wasn't surprised. "Michael had always been a public intellectual and he came from a family prominent in [Canada's] Liberal Party," he later said, referring to Ignatieff's father George, a Russian emigre who became a prominent Canadian diplomat in the postwar period and was sometimes called "the greatest governor general the country never had." (Ignatieff's mother's brother, George Grant, was also prominent, but as a conservative political philosopher.) Those, like Nye, who were close to Michael Ignatieff knew that he was a man of huge ambitions.

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