Academic journal article International Journal

Michael Ignatieff

Academic journal article International Journal

Michael Ignatieff

Article excerpt

Idealism and the challenge of the "lesser evil"

Since his return to Canada in late 2005 to run for a seat in the house of commons, Michael Ignatieffhas become one of the most discussed figures in Canadian politics. His detractors have accused him of being an arrogant intellectual bereft of the political skills required for national office, a sellout who preferred life abroad to that at home, and-perhaps most damagingly-a warmonger in the thrall of the Bush administration. His supporters praise him as a creative thinker who has the big ideas necessary to revitalize federal politics and the country's international standing. Certainly, he is a member of that elite club of Canadian writers who enjoy a worldwide following. He made his reputation in Britain in the 19803 and 19903, and in the last few years has risen to prominence in the US thanks to his outspoken-though conflicted-support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His defence of the Iraq War and the Canadian mission in Afghanistan has become one of the defining issues of the current Liberal party leadership race. Friends and foes alike scrutinize his ideas about foreign policy in the hopes of divining how he would act if eventually elected to 24 Sussex Drive.

Ignatieff is a liberal interventionist, a member of that small group of thinkers who support military action on the basis of left-leaning ideals, particularly the global defence of democracy and human rights. Blurring the traditional boundaries between left and right, they insist on the need to back up principle with force. To many of their erstwhile colleagues on the left, most of whom stridently oppose the Iraq War and, in some cases, the use of military force altogether, these views are unsettling. In contemporary Canadian politics, the liberal interventionists are a decided minority-indeed, apart from Ignatieff it is difficult to name a prominent member of the club in this country-yet their worldview is the product of a cogent set of philosophical principles. They are the spine of Ignatieffs writings, dating back at least a quarter-century. It is impossible to understand his world-view without referring to these sometimes-unspoken assumptions, best summarized as cosmopolitanism, the universality of democracy and human rights, pragmatism, and a willingness to use force in defence of these ideals. Canada's role in the world will be grounded in these principles if Ignatieff's vision for the country is realized. His opponents are under the obligation to engage these principles on their philosophical, moral, and historic merits and offer a serious alternative to them if they want to develop a coherent critique of his worldview.


The starting point for Ignatieffs thought is cosmopolitanism, a way of thinking about ethics and responsibility. When weighing questions of international justice, cosmopolitans refuse to distinguish between fellow citizens and total strangers. Humans have obligations to each other that stretch far beyond their own countries, and ethical concerns know no frontiers. When a group of people is in dire need anywhere, we cannot ignore our obligation to help them: we must act. It is not necessary to provide every person with every possible advantage or material good, but we must be willing to step in when fundamental rights are violated, whether by a government or some other group.1

Cosmopolitanism exists in direct opposition to both communitarianism and postmodernism. Communitarian thinkers insist that bonds of ethical obligation tie us only to our fellow citizens. From this perspective, Canadians and their government should not worry about human rights abuses in Sudan; nothing connects them, ethically or otherwise, to the Sudanese people. Moreover, communitarians think it impossible and even foolish to try to intercede to protect the rights of those in danger outside their own country. If any capital bears the responsibility for stopping the suffering in Sudan, it is Khartoum, not Ottawa, London, or Tokyo. …

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