Michael Ignatieff: A Liberal Imperialist?

Did Michael Ignatieff turn from a liberal internationalist into an American imperialist?

November 20, 2003

Did Michael Ignatieff turn from a liberal internationalist into an American imperialist?

Michael Ignatieff, the director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, has always been a liberal internationalist. However, events in the Balkans and the war on terrorism and in Iraq have had a profound impact on his thinking. He's now joined the "imperial crowd." Our Read My Lips traces this evolution.

Are you comfortable with the notion of an empire?

“Imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it is politically incorrect.”
(August 2003)

How do you defend U.S. interventionism?

“There are many peoples who owe their freedom to an exercise of American military power.”
(January 2003)

Are you worried about a backlash within the United States?

“The anti-intervention party in American politics often captures the high moral ground — but usually loses the war for public opinion.”
(September 2003)

Why is that?

“Americans, by and large, still think of intervening as a noble act in which the new world comes to the rescue of the old.”
(September 2003)

Yet, has U.S. intervention gained a new quality?

“The days when the United States intervenes as the servant of the international community may be well and truly over. When it intervenes in the future, it will very likely go it alone — and will do so essentially for itself.”
(September 2003)

How did the United States actually become an imperial power?

“A historian once remarked that Britain acquired its empire in ‘a fit of absence of mind.’ If Americans have an empire, they have acquired it in a state of deep denial.”
(January 2003)

Isn't U.S. imperialism a paradox?

“It is the imperialism of a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire — and who like to think of themselves as the friend of freedom everywhere.”
(January 2003)

How does the United States' current role in Iraq play into all this?

“The operation in Iraq is a defining moment in America’s long debate with itself about whether its overseas role as an empire threatens — or strengthens — its existence as a republic.”
(January 2003)

Does the Bush Administration have realistic goals in Iraq and Afghanistan?

“In a war on terror, containing — rather than defeating the enemy is the most you can hope for.”
(September 2003)

What determines whether or not the United States will intervene?

“The only factor that keeps the United States from intervening is if the country in question has nuclear weapons.”
(September 2003)

How does the world feel with increasing U.S. power?

“A new international order is emerging — but it is designed to suit American imperial objectives.”
(January 2003)

So the United States has become what the French and British once were?

“A role once played by the Ottoman Empire, then by the French and the British, will now be played by a nation that has to ask whether in becoming an empire it risks losing its soul as a republic.”
(January 2003)

In what way is U.S. imperialism different from previous empires?

“This is imperialism in a hurry: to spend money, to get results, to turn the place back to the locals — and get out.”
(January 2003)

Why the quick-fix approach?

“The burden of empire is of long duration, and democracies are impatient with long-lasting burdens.”
(January 2003)

What makes the U.S. empire so powerful?

“It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands — and maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents…”
(January 2003)

Yet, how powerful is the United States really?

“The characteristic delusion of imperial power is to confuse global power with global domination. The Americans may have the former but they do not have the latter.”
(January 2003)

What makes any empire so complex?

“The 21st century imperium is an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.”
(January 2003)

Do you favor a multilateral world order?

“Why bother maintaining a multilateral order — of free trade, open markets and common defense — if your allies only use it to tie Gulliver down with leading strings?”
(September 2003)

What will be the future of relations between the United States and its allies concerning intervention?

"There will be a new division of labor in which America does the fighting, the French, British and Germans do the police patrols in the border zones — and the Dutch, Swiss and Scandinavians provide the humanitarian aid.”
(January 2003)

How do you view U.S. European allies?

“America’s European allies are happy to conceal their absolute military dependence with obstreperously independent foreign policies.”
(September 2003)

What has gone wrong in Europe?

“For 50 years, Europe rebuilt itself economically while passing on the costs of its defense to the United States.”
(January 2003)

Is it fair to say that the Bush Administration has wasted international good will?

“Right through the Kosovo intervention in 1999, our allies kept faith with American good intentions. Now all that moral capital has been spent.”
(September 2003)

Will the United States survive as the new empire?

“To call America the new Rome is at once to recall Rome’s glory — and its eventual fate at the hands of the barbarians.”
(January 2003)

What made you a proponent of U.S. imperialist tendencies?

“I have supported the operation in Bosnia, in Kosovo and in Afghanistan, and what I draw some heart from in the current conflict in Iraq is that in those three cases — Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan — I think we can say, looking history in the eye, that the use of American force has made things better for the people of the countries concerned; not wonderfully better, not paradise, but better. Fewer people are dying. Fewer women are being abused.”
(March 2003)

Do you ever have second thoughts?

“Even at this late date, it is still possible to ask: Why should a republic take on the risks of empire?”
(January 2003)