Review Essay: What Michael Ignatieff Left Out

A Response to His Emerging Critique of Pacifism in Blood and Belonging, The Warrior's Honour, and Virtual War

By John Bacher (reviewer) | 2000-10-01 12:00:00

One of the most provocative writers on the rapidly changing political realities of post-cold world is the writer and broadcaster Michael Ignatieff. His perception of reality is more somber than the facile optimism about the world's conditions displayed by the business press, with its triumphalist market exuberance. In his remarkable trilogy of books written over the past seven years, Ignatieff has correctly identified the rise of ethnic nationalism as one of the trends that have squandered the peace dividend anticipated after the end of the Cold War.

Ignatieff identifies ethnic nationalism as the main obstacle to peaceful democratic transitions after the Cold War. This, as he perceptively hammers home in each of his three books, clearly has been the case in former Yugoslavia.

Ignatieff depicts the nationalistic war, genocide, famine, and dictatorship in several countries, including such zones of ethnic hatred as the continuing dictatorships of Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Burundi and Angola.

He is most eloquent in his description of the Rwandan genocide in the second book of his trilogy, The Warrior's Honour. Here he notes that radio broadcasts from Kigali that incited the genocide could have been stopped by UN forces already in the country. The most moving passage of all of his recent writings concerns the church compound at Nyarubuye as a memorial of genocide.

The Importance of Democracy

However, because of his failure to distinguish between the continuing civil wars in dictatorships and the remarkable progress that has been made towards peacefully accommodating minority cultures in democracies, Ignatieff misinterprets several post-Cold War trends. In his 1993 book, Blood and Belonging, Ignatieff had six chapters on ethnic conflicts. One featured conflicts in the dictatorships of the former Yugoslavia. Three dealt with such disputes in mature democracies of Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Another two chapters dealt with ethnic disputes in the Ukraine and Turkey, which are best described as emerging democracies. One section on Kurdistan concerns disputes in both dictatorial Iraq and semi-democratic Turkey with their Kurdish minority.

Consider the seven years since Blood and Belonging was published. What is striking is that it underscores a conclusion that Ignatieff resists - that democratization is the best way to moderate ethnic conflict. In each of his original case studies, where democracy has endured and deepened, violent conflict has been reduced; where no such progress has been made, conflict has exploded.

Currently the human rights organization Freedom House rates Serbia as one of the world's worst human rights abusers. Not surprising is the focus of Ignatieff's most recent book, Virtual War. Both in Virtual Warand in his second Book of the trilogy, The Warrior's Honour, Ignatieff has virtually nothing to say about the societies where democratization has served to foster peace.

Blood and Belonging was written at a time when Canada itself was marked by violent ethnic conflict in the Oka golf course dispute and the Crees' dispute with Hydro Quebec over the proposed massive flooding of their land by dams. At that ominous hour, Ignatieff warned that if Canada broke up every multicultural society in the world would be torn by violent conflict.

Fortunately, Canada is still here. The violent ethnic conflict which stained the country has stopped, with the last death taking place at Ipperwash in 1995. Our Governor-General's consort, John Ralston Saul, celebrates Canada's low world record in casualties in violent political disputes since 1867.

Since Ignatieff's dark prophecies in Blood and Belonging, Canada has continued to be a model of peacefully enduring multicultural co-operation. The Cree stopped Hydro Quebec's dams and have won more recent victories in the courts against clear-cut logging. The proposed golf course expansion that was the cause of the Mohawk barricade was halted. The former battleground of Oka forest was recently the scene of a peaceful celebration of the advances won by native people in the past decade, most notably the new Territory of Nunavut. The Ipperwash case is proceeding in the courts.

Canadian success in staying together peacefully is not mentioned in Ignatieff's two subsequent books, The Warrior's Honour and Virtual War. InThe Warrior's Honour, Quebec is mentioned in one line which wisely disparages the separatist movement as lacking any basis because of the absence of human rights violations that would justify the breakup of Canada.

In the past decade Canada is full of good examples of increased multicultural co-operation, but we hear none of it from Ignatieff. In every predominantly English-speaking province French language minorities have won major victories for their rights, especially funding for schools. The separatist movement lost another referendum and a new Clarity Bill seeks to make such attempts more difficult in the future. Slowly, Canada continues to evolve along the lines of a triple majority - native peoples, anglophones, and francophones - but Ignatieff finds all this peaceful accommodation duller than the newest trends in high tech weapons.

Progress in democratization has also fostered peace in Great Britain. Since the end of the Cold War, the UK finally got around the problem of unjust majoritarian rule by Protestants in Northern Ireland by successfully promoting the notion of consociational democracy. In such models, safeguards are put in place, such as guaranteed representation in cabinet for the Catholic minority of Northern Ireland, to ensure that the civil liberties of minorities are not abused. Although the first coalition government was short lived, it has now been strengthened by the relinquishing of weapons by the IRA.

Germany's democratic peace has also been strengthened by extending voting rights to immigrants long denied citizenship. The 1999 reforms permitted dual citizenship and granted citizenship to immigrant children.

In Blood and Belonging Ignatieff warned of a future war in Ukraine over its Ta tar minority. Such a war was averted because Ukraine's government listened to reason, prodded by the National Minorities Commission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe. It negotiated autonomy for the Crimea. This has been the basis for an enduring peace, since both Tatars and ethnic Russians have accepted it and dropped separatist demands.

In Kurdistan progress towards peace has accompanied the advancement of human rights in the states that oppress their Kurdish minorities - the dictatorships of Syria, Iran, Iraq, and semi-democratic Turkey. Tyrannical Syria, omitted by Ignatieff from his Blood and Belonging Kurdistan chapter, denies its Kurdish minority citizenship. Iran, also omitted from Blood and Belonging,is not much better. It openly imposes state-sanctioned discrimination on Kurds.

The states oppressing Kurds that Ignatieff examined in 1993 are Turkey and Iraq. Progress has been slight for the Kurds in Iraq, primarily because of the cleverness of the Iraqi dictatorship in encouraging factional conflict within its autonomous Kurdish enclave. Much more improvement toward an enduring peace has taken place in democratizing Turkey. Here Kurdish rights have increased as part of the price of admission into the European Union and from the courage shown by Turkish human rights activists.

Preventive Mediation

Ignatieff does not mention preventive mediation in his crusade to justify armed humanitarian intervention. Not only are Canada, Northern Ireland and Ukraine ignored, but we hear nothing in Virtual War about how the OSCE mediation efforts encouraged peace between Turks and Bulgarians in Bulgaria, the Gagauz and the Moldavians in Moldova, the Albanians and Macedonians in Macedonia, and between ethnic Russians and the new majorities of the Baltic states. While Ignatieff shows the horrors of Rwanda, he ignores the success of peaceful compromises in South Africa. His continual stress on failures to avert war in the post-Cold War world serve to legitimate the refinement of hi-tech weapons by the United States against the world's remaining dictatorships.

While there were many flash points for potential war in post-Communist Europe, Ignatieff fails to examine why it is only in former Yugoslavia that armed conflict erupted. Others have done so, and their arguments are ignored.

Ignatieff does not explain why, following the ouster of former Serbian Communist Party leader Ivan Stambolic, the state media whipped up a frenzy of hatred against Albanians. In other areas of post-Communist Europe, similar propaganda intended to exploit popular fears was countered by more tolerant messages from Radio Free Europe encouraging reasoned dialogue and mediation. Such messages would not be broadcast in Serbo-Croatian into Yugoslavia since, in the last days of the Cold War, it was still courted as a potential ally against the Warsaw Pact.

Many experienced pacifists, with service in dangerous war zones, believe that a bigger presence of OSCE observers in Kosovo might have eliminated the need for military rescue. This contention is not disputed by Ignatieff, but simply ignored. This spares Ignatieff any acknowledgment that, if the observers had been in place, it would have been impossible to massively deport ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. The announcement of the threat of NATO bombing allowed Milosevic to begin his audacious efforts at ethnic cleansing on a scale not seen in Europe since the death of Stalin.

The distortions of Virtual War are most troubling when Ignatieff discusses the failure of the Rambouillet agreement. Its breakdown provided the reason for the third and final warning of NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia. Key details concerning the failure of the talks to secure the consent of Yugoslavia are simply left out of Ignatieff's account.

Virtual War tells us that Yugoslavia refused at the Rambouillet talks to evict its troops from Kosovo and admit NATO peacekeepers, but eventually were forced by the bombing to do so. However, Ignatieff fails to mentionwhy Yugoslavia rejected these terms - and continued to reject them through seven weeks of NATO bombing. In fact, even the most liberal, democratic groups in Yugoslavia would not have accepted any agreement that divided the country along the lines of the Rambouillet document.

In fact, even after seven weeks of bombardment, the text that Yugoslavia finally accepted to end the war was one that no longer contained any requirement for a referendum to be held after three years on the final status of Kosovo. (This original aspect of the Rambouillet text had been demanded by the KLA and accepted only reluctantly by NATO.) Ignatieff mentions neither this important change nor the fact that the final agreement even goes so far as to guarantee Yugoslavian sovereignty over Kosovo. This was not, as Ignatieff said later in television interviews in Canada, because "virtual war" had failed. Instead, continuing Yugoslav sovereignty suited the objectives of NATO, which certainly did not want to ignite a new round of wars in the Balkans by promoting the discredited principle of "self-determination." Moreover, had NATO desired revenge enough to demand harsher terms from Yugoslavia, that would have made it even more difficult for the democratic opposition in Serbia to depose the dictator, Slobodan Milosevic.

But Ignatieff, like the mass media in general, pays little attention to the democratic opposition in Serbia. Rather than describing their varied political tendencies, he simply disparages them as not being up to the stature of Vaclav Havel.

In describing the failure of the mass demonstrations for democracy following the Dayton Accords, Ignatieff fails to inform readers that its most prominent leader, Vuk Draskovic, became Vice-Premier on the backs of these protesters. He then ignores the fact that Draskovic, while in opposition, demanded widespread expulsions of Kosovar Albanians - policies which he attempted to carry out in the early phases of the war while he was in the government. Nor does Ignatieff describe how those more committed democrats who remained in opposition during the Kosovo war, such as the Civic Alliance headed by Vesna Pesic, resisted Slobodan Milosevic's appeals for a government of national unity for ethnic cleansing. It remains the task of brave groups such as the Civic Alliance to repeat Havel's triumph in Czechoslovakia. To do this they need sympathetic and well-versed support, not Ignatieff's ridicule.

A vivid part of Virtual War is the chapter where Ignatieff describes the determined efforts of war crimes investigator Louise Arbour. Although titled "Justice and Revenge," this chapter describes Arbour's crusading role in making international law work. Ignatieff describes Arbour's hounding of governments to provide evidence of war crimes, resisted by narrow-minded bureaucrats and nationalists. He reports that Arbour had to fight for basic pieces of investigation and to have war crimes suspects arrested in Bosnia. It was a triumph even to have "drone aircraft take pictures of a suspected massacre sight on a particular day."

The best moment in Virtual War is when Ignatieff allows the facts to speak against his tendency to defend armed intervention. This occurs, paradoxically, when he describes Arbour's indictment of Milosevic, not NATO's bombing, as the crucial moment that turned the tide in the Kosovo war. The indictment finally took the sort of action against Milosevic that well-informed pacifists had been demanding for years. It froze his foreign assets, allowed his international bank accounts to be subpoenaed, and prevented him from traveling. Such nonviolent measures may have had a greater impact in securing the pullout of Yugoslavian troops from Kosovo than NATO's beguiling high tech weapons.

Although Ignatieff does not explain it, part of the underdeveloped interest in Cyber-War is to nonviolently zap the bank accounts of dictatorships, instead of having to drop bombs or impose sanctions which encourage mass starvation to end human rights abuses. This form of high tech war is underdeveloped precisely because its targets are too powerful. It threatens bank balances.

Ignatieff ignores the connection between war and dictatorship. He suggests inThe Warrior's Honour that in many circumstances, the best action, is "to let a victor emerge and then to assist him to establish and sustain the monopoly of violence on which order depends." Such remedies, if not accompanied by a transition to a full democracy with civil liberties, would eventually result in a new civil war against human rights abuses.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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