Ignatieff for Canada
A Harvard professor who supported the invasion of Iraq moves back to his native Canada, wins a seat in parliament, and goes on to transform Canadian foreign policy. At least that’s how the Michael Ignatieff story is supposed to go.
Canadians normally dont get fired up about foreign policy in their parliamentary elections. Then again, Michael Ignatieff is not a normal candidate. Last fall, the professor left his post as director of Harvard Universitys Carr Center for Human Rights Policy to run for parliament in his native Canada. His new office is in a bare-bones campaign headquarters on an industrial corner in suburban Toronto, where he prepares for the January 23 election. Ignatieff, a Liberal Party candidate who is considered by many to be one of the best minds Canada has ever produced, wants Canada to assume a greater role in world affairs. Americans probably know him best as a liberal hawk who supported the Iraq war.
Ignatieff has spent most of his career in Britain and the United States, but hes hardly a stranger to Canadian foreign policy. His late father, George Ignatieff, was a career diplomat who served as Canadas ambassador to Yugoslavia, NATO, and the United Nations. He was president of the U.N. Security Council during the 1960s. As an academic, the younger Ignatieff regularly discussed and analyzed Canadian policy. What he sees is a country with potential influence abroad, but little will to exert it.
Nothing in Canadian foreign policy seems absolutely essential or necessary, Ignatieff said in an October lecture at McGill University. We have no coherent system of triage. We do not have a way to distinguish the vital and essential from the merely important or fashionable. We do a little development. Not enough. We do a little governance promotion, [but] not enough to be a serious competitor of the Scandinavians. We promote U.N. reform, half-heartedly, knowing that we cannot hope for much, since we are not on the Security Council and the Americans dont much care for reform in any event.
For Ignatieff, Canada is stuck in a transitional phase, where the relationships that drove it during the Cold War (NATO and the United Nations, for example) are fading from importance. What is needed now, he believes, is not lightly armed Canadian peacekeepers in Cyprus, but well-equipped and trained combat-ready troops enforcing peace in Afghanistan. Canadas economy is still heavily dependent on trade with the United States and increasingly relies on exports of natural resources such as wood, minerals, and natural gas. I dont want us to be the Saudi Arabia of the north, says Ignatieff. We have a kind of Canadian standard of excellence, the question now is Are you a global standard? If youre not at a global standard, youve got five years [to catch up].
In the foreign policy of the 21st century, the key thing to be is a producer of good ideas, says Ignatieff. As a middle power, our policy is not leveraged by power but by ideas. Unfortunately for Ignatieff, many Canadians dont like his ideas. Ignatieff supported the Iraq war, which an overwhelming majority of his compatriots opposed. He backed the proposed continental missile defense shield, which the Liberal government refused to endorse. And hes been taking heat for his controversial endorsement of interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation that are, he says, lesser evils than torture. His critics paint him as a neocon in humanitarian clothing. At his nomination rally in late November, hecklers shouted, American, Torture lite, and Illegal war.
The heckling set the tone for a tumultuous campaign. Already tagged as a carpetbagger (he has never lived in the district in which hes running) handpicked by the Liberal Party, Ignatieff hurt himself when he told the Harvard Crimson that he might return to Harvard if he were to losea statement he later retracted, saying it was a joke. Still, the comment helped his opponents who portray him as disloyal to Canada. Rather unexpectedly, he has also faced protesters who claim his 1993 book on ethnic nationalism, Blood and Belonging, is insulting to Ukrainians, a group that accounts for 7 percent of his district.
If he wins, even bigger challenges await; there is already talk of Ignatieff eventually becoming leader of the Liberal Party. But Ottawa is not Harvard, and if elected, Ignatieff would find it difficult to bring his ideals into policy. [It] will be a test of whether principled intelligence can survive the Lilliputian reality of Canadian politics, wrote the columnist Robert Sibley in the Ottawa Citizen at the start of the campaign.
Ignatieff is aware of the difficulties. Ive gone into politics to test what you can achieve if you believe certain things, says Ignatieff. If Im asked to do stuff that just seems to be in the dishonorable compromise realm, then I should get out. If I forget these noble words, my wife will kick me in the backside. That is, only if the voters dont do so first.
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