Michael Ignatieff: Canada Can Be a City on a Hill, But We Need to Get Our Own House in Order First

The following is an edited transcript of an interview that took place with Michael Ignatieff.

How can Canada and other liberal democracies respond to the challenges China poses to the rules based international order? Is fostering collaboration with this regime still a possibility? 

In a rules-based international order, you do not take hostages. Canadians have been imprisoned in China for absolutely no reason. In a rules-based international order, you execute warrants by other countries, hold people in detention, and put them through a process of law. Then, if the warrant is justified, you extradite them— if it is not warranted, you do not. The rules-based order is not an abstraction.

Middle power countries like Canada depend tremendously on a predictable order, but that order is dissolving before our eyes. Canada helped to build it. We were instrumental in the creation of NATO and the UN. Our role in establishing the rules-based order is a part of the little story we tell ourselves about how great we are—but it is over.

We cannot rely on the United States. The Trump phenomenon is not some passing thing. When the chips are down, at its core, America’s relationship with Canada is entirely transactional—at other times, indifferent. We have got billions of dollars of trade crossing the border every day and it can be turned off just like that. In an epidemiological crisis, the United States did not share its vaccines. We need to become much more self-reliant. Our supply chains were ineffective. We had no masks, no vaccines—nothing. We depended on the rules-based international order and an open international trading regime but were caught short in a real crisis. As a principle of national security, we desperately need to rethink our supply chains, but that is just one part of the problem. We need to evaluate our northern and southern energy links. What are the consequences of those being blocked or shut off?

We need to do an inventory of vital national interest when it comes to trade, defence, national health, and the environment, the point being, we cannot count on anybody like we did before. Half the world wants to live in Canada because we are blessed with wealth and strong rule of law. However, that yields another national security issue—immigration policy. I agree with those that believe we need to increase the size of our population. It would be great to welcome more Canadians, especially considering our low birth rate, but we must decide how to do that. It is a national security priority.

We are living through the emergence of China as a world power. It wants to impose its rules on all of us. That poses acute difficulties for Canada. China poses a huge threat to Hong Kong, and it would be a great shame for our country to turn our backs on Hong Kong. If the Hong Kong Chinese want to come to Canada, we must let them in. There will be increasing pressure on Taiwan. We have always spoke up in defense of Taiwan and we should continue to do so, but I do not see how Canada can go to war to defend the territorial integrity of Taiwan. However, we may need to take in a lot of Taiwanese refugees, because what is happening in the South China Sea will not end well.

I do not want to be part of an ideological cold war with China. The deforming effect of that sort of hysteria has been extremely bad for our democracy. We do not want to play that game, but we need to be extremely prudent. We also must accept that we should defend the rights of the Uyghurs but frankly, China does not care what we think. Canada is no longer in a position to wave its finger at other nations.

It is important for the Uyghurs to hear that we care. But, to suppose that our gesturing means anything to the Chinese is an illusion—one that we should not entertain. The crucial human rights objectives for Canada should be internal and domestic. The United States talks about itself as a city on a hill, but for the world we are also a city on the hill. Rather, we should be, but we are not. Every single morning, I pick up a newspaper detailing the discovery of another grave of Aboriginal children. We might benefit from doing a little less lecturing overseas and fix some things that can be fixed at home. Truth about our past, reconciliation—getting our house in order, instead of walking around with this absurd moral pride, which is a form of complacency. It is a strategic weakness for Canada. It makes the world think of us as hypocrites. The most important role for Canada in the world is to be an example at home. That has always been the thing that has won us friends everywhere. People looked at us and thought this was a good place, a decent place. We take care of people, health care, a civil polity, and justice for all. The strength of our domestic institutions is what makes us a strong country, and an important figure in the world.

What are some of the root causes of populism and the rise of right-wing extremism in the West? Are these trends we should be vigilant about in Canada? 

Populism argues that people have been disenfranchised, mostly by liberal elites, and the people need to take back control from those who claim to know better than them. Political movements such as this have recurred throughout centuries. Populism is an age-old revolt against the tendency for democracies to become self-reproducing oligarchies that exclude the common people. Though interpreted negatively, particularly in the last decade, the populist challenge to democracy is crucial to the reinvigoration of democracy.

I am not alarmed by a politician simply because claim to be a populist. There are left and right-wing populists—both seek to challenge status quo in the name of the people. The problem is that populists also tend to challenge democracy itself, in the sense that they construe democracy to be majority rule only. Democracy is much more than majority rule. It includes minority rights, constitutional overrides, a free press, regulatory agencies, and universities. Democracy is power checking power to keep people free. When a populist movement arises that says, in effect, “We the people have been distant, neglected, condescended to—our interests ignored”, if it genuinely seeks to remedy these social ills, it can be tremendously positive. Nonetheless, can also be tyrannous, and therefore dangerous. The examples of populism posing a danger to democracy are too numerous to mention.

In Hungary, for example, my university has been expelled from the country by a government that had a popular mandate from the people. However, it is a mandate unshackled by any respect for constitutions, rule of law, or the independence of institutions like universities. At that point, is dangerous. How dangerous is it for the West? If you are a member of the liberal elite, popular wisdom suggests you should be losing sleep. From a larger historical perspective, populist revolts are essential to the renewal of democracy, provided they do not destroy democracy in the process. The Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, nearly destroyed democracy. Trump won an election in 2016, free and fair. He claimed to represent people who had been forgotten and ignored. Declaring the 2020 election stolen and encouraging an attack on the fountainhead of democracy itself—and there is no doubt that he did encourage it—this is the point at which populism becomes profoundly dangerous. 

Are information and communications technologies improving or degrading our democracies? How are digital media and the internet influencing our political beliefs, discourse, and behaviours? 

In the 1950s and 60s, elites had a near monopoly on information. The percentage of people with a university degree was much smaller. Everybody read the newspapers and watched CBC, or their local news channel. This produced political stability because elites essentially controlled the flow of information. In 2021, all of us have the equivalent of the Library of Alexandria in our pockets. Technology has been deeply destabilizing. Elites can go on television and proclaim that their vaccine program, for instance, is ahead of the pack. Somebody else can scroll through the statistics on their phone, revealing a different story. In the past decade we have seen a contestation of elite information monopolies, which is very positive. Nonetheless, democracy becomes a very turbulent place when everyone is asking, “says who?”

When the facts are continuously challenged, it is difficult to agree upon the essential truths we require to make decisions. We can establish facts quickly—that is not the problem. We can establish how many people have been vaccinated, how many are not, where they are, and what we need to do to distribute more vaccines. More problematic, are groups of individuals who resolutely believe fictions about vaccines, science etc. Some have described this phenomenon as a problem of trust—I do not think it is. This is a problem of growing fanaticism, enabled increasingly by technology. Its my facts against yours. Different generations rely on different sources, and they very rarely overlap. People are living in different realities, some of which are segmented by ethnicity and race. It makes co-existence extremely difficult.

Information technology has democratized access to knowledge and challenged elites. This is good, but it is nothing new. Emerging technologies recurrently challenge information monopolies and destabilize politics. This is not unprecedented, we can understand it, and we need to get used to it. Of course, I am referring mostly to Canada and the United States, where information flows are generally open.

There are solutions to the social and political problems posed by emerging technologies—they have been adopted in places like China and Russia. The nationalization of internets and closure of information spaces, leaving only a political party to dictate what reality is—that is happening. We have seen it before, the 21st century offers more sophisticated technology though. This is an enormous challenge, but I am not pessimistic about free societies. I never have been. I would have never bet in favor of Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia, and I am not betting in favor of Xi Jinping’s China. Give me free information every day of the week with all the chaos and political difficulties it generates. Bring it on. It is not new, frightening, or unprecedented—but it is difficult.

Climate change has been described as a threat multiplier. In what ways can we expect the effects of climate change to influence Canadian and international security? Do you think there is still hope that we can mitigate the impacts of climate change through alliances and multilateral institutions? Are liberal democracies equipped to face up to this challenge? 

Our public discourse seems to suggest that we are headed for an irreversible climate catastrophe. Activists, politicians, and media outlets persistently forecast that it is too late to address the challenges of climate change, we are all going to die, etc. These are what are called wake-up calls— a kind of political action, designed to accelerate the pace of change. However, I think this strategy can also be profoundly demobilizing. If we tell ourselves that a cataclysm is inevitable, dooming us all, how do we muster the political will to at least try to mitigate some of the effects of climate change? I do not buy this narrative, for reasons pertaining to liberal democracy.

We have made more progress in our understanding of the environment, and there has been more widespread diffusion of that scientific understanding into the political system than at any other time in human history. It has also occurred within a relatively short period of time, from Earth Day 1970 to 2021. The learning curve of the entire planet about systemic climate effects is just incredible, and it’s slowly translating into political effects. The car I drive shuts off when I am at a stop, there is a recycling bin on my front porch, my wife and I separate our garbage, and we try to reduce our carbon footprint any way we can. We are not especially virtuous, but we do it, just like millions of other citizens around the world. When I am on the train from Hungary to Vienna, there is a twenty-minute stretch on the Austrian side of the border where there must be five-hundred windmills turning. We are in the middle of an energy conversion, which is absolutely without precedent historically. Of course, it’s not fast enough. Of course, it’s not affecting the developing world, where energy use and climate heating is very serious. The only places in the world that have plateaued their CO2 emissions are liberal democracies. That is not because we are more virtuous. Liberal democracies like Canada and Germany can use their wealth to address climate change.

Nobody can be too optimistic about climate. It is incredibly serious. Lytton, B.C had to be evacuated earlier this summer because of a climate-induced forest fire. That is nightmarish—you will not get a whiff of complacency out of me. Nonetheless, we cannot create effective climate change policy if we give up on liberal democracy. Secondly, public consciousness around the phenomenon of climate change has grown incrementally over time. Let’s not give up on the progress we have made and disparage the few instruments we have that can make a difference.

What kind of challenges do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has posed to democracies? What can we expect to see in the coming years, as the world recovers from the effects of the pandemic? 

The idea that the pandemic has damaged democracy does not seem right to me. What was interesting, on the contrary, was massive public subscription and adherence to measures restricting individual liberty.  Our democracies turned out to be very resolute, and resilient. We told people that they would die unless they stayed home, wore a mask and got vaccinated—a large majority of the Canadian population said, “Okay, we’ll do that.” In fact, the strongest criticism of democracies across the world has been that we were too little, too late.

Our societies have had to learn very painful lessons, but I do not think they are lessons about the permanent damage done to democracy by an epidemiological hazard. I think on the contrary, it shows people react quickly when they are told the facts, and they will support very tough measures if they believe there is good evidence to suggest those measures are necessary. 

Born in Canada, educated at the University of Toronto and Harvard, Michael Ignatieff is a university professor, writer and former politician.

His major publications are The Needs of Strangers (1984), Scar Tissue (1992), Isaiah Berlin (1998), The Rights Revolution (2000), Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (2001), The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2004), Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (2013), and The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World (2017).

Between 2006 and 2011, he served as an MP in the Parliament of Canada and then as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Leader of the Official Opposition. He is a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada and holds thirteen honorary degrees.

Between 2012 and 2015 he served as Centennial Chair at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. Between 2014 and 2016 he was Edward R. Murrow Chair of the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is currently the Rector and President of Central European University in Budapest.l.

He is currently the Rector and President of Central European University in Budapest.

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