College Quarterly
Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1
Notes Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Michael Ignatieff.
London: Vintage, 2003.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Liberal critics of American foreign policy face a dilemma. On the one hand, the invasion and occupation of Iraq seems transparently to be a profit-driven adventure in realpolitik. Therein, the greed of US corporations is sustained by an invocation of what can only be called “the divine right of presidents” and a massive activation of National Guard units across the USA. Of course, the disconcerting evangelical ramblings of George W. Bush (“God told me to strike Saddam Hussein” and all that) could be overlooked as just a slip into heavenly hyperbole—possibly to curry further favour with Christian fundamentalists. This would be a mistake, however, for such theological musings are apparently sincere. They emerge from a dissonant ideological order that makes backwoods doltishness a virtue, while simultaneously extolling the achievements of the most powerful material culture on earth. The recent proposal, for example, of Georgia educational authorities to remove the word “evolution” from its high school science curriculum stands in mighty contrast to the technological sophistication that permits automated US go-carts to scamper about in the surface of Mars. The USA is, if nothing else, a land of astonishing intellectual incongruities.

On the other hand, many of the harshest opponents of US foreign policy cannot help feeling that the overthrow of a dastardly tyrant can somehow be justified, especially if “humanitarian intervention” succeeds in bringing about the promised rise of prosperity, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. So, even while denouncing the arrogance of US unilateralism, somewhere in the critic’s heart there remains a guilty hope that the project will be successful, that in some middling future sustainable pluralistic polities will be constructed in the Arab and other worlds.

The dilemma of the critic, of course, is simply a reflection of the contradictions of the apologist. In Empire Lite, those contradictions are plain for all to see. Michael Neumann, professor of philosophy at Trent University, complains that “Michael Ignatieff shares a few things with … Tony Blair, George Bush and others. One is an extraordinary ability to reconcile warm concern with insufferable smugness. Another is a plan.” Pomposity and cunning coexist among leaders who praise democracy but promote dictatorship, who advocate free enterprise while assisting capitalist concentration, and who invoke the rhetoric of individual liberty even as they shred the Bill of Rights. Such hypocrisy would be unexceptional; what matters is the plan.

The purpose of the plan is to dispense with dangerous regimes and reconstruct failed states world-wide. Its rationale is easily stated. Brutal dictatorships, especially when animated by senseless ethnonationalism or non-Christian fundamentalism, constitute threats not only their own peoples but to civilization. Overcoming these geopolitical horrors is the duty of advanced military states of which the USA stands not only as the most powerful but also as the only one willing to take up the burden of leadership.

In taking up this burdensome plan, Michael Ignatieff believes that the emergent “American empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and white man’s burden.” It displays, instead, an “hegemony without colonies, a global sphere of influence without the burden of direct administration.” Ever the realist, Ignatieff acknowledges that this new empire is not motivated by hypocritical faux humanitarianism but by ruthless self-interest, accompanied by arrogance and ignorance in roughly equal parts. Still, compared to the barbaric alternatives, an assertive America is humanity’s last, best hope.

Unlike many other supporters of the new imperium, Ignatieff is quite willing to concede that the American mission has a spotty record when it comes to balancing high-minded ideals and crude self-indulgence. Confronted with regimes that seemed, even potentially, to threaten its economic and political interests, the US has not hesitated to overthrow or assist in the toppling—overtly or covertly—of democratically elected leaders (Iran’s Mossadegh in the 1950s, the Dominican Republic’s Juan Bosch in the 1960s and Chile’s Salvador Allende in the 1970s, to name a few). It has also kept in power a slew of corrupt dictators (Cuba’s Batista in the 1950s, the Congo’s Mobutu in the 1960s and Nicaragua’s Somoza in the 1970s, again to name just a few). Sometimes it was complicit in both the promotion and the subsequent demotion of its puppet tyrants (South Vietnamese President Diem, Panamanian President Noriega and Saddam Hussein himself come immediately to mind). Yet, a pattern and a purpose can be discerned throughout.

The pattern might ideally resemble US involvement in Germany and Japan following World War II. In those cases, a combination of military security, economic assistance and political guidance made previously hostile and dictatorial regimes over into functioning liberal democracies with market economies, abundant civil rights, karaoke and automobile manufacturing plants. The pattern might resemble those occupations and transformations, but it does not, for—despite their disreputable political rulers—both former antagonists were functioning, integrated, structurally coherent industrial societies before their defeat by the Allies. Nation-building was unnecessary; national re-building was required. The so-called “basket case” countries now being targeted for assistance are less fortunate, for they are the artificial and irrational by-products of an earlier imperialism. Their prospects are less promising. In Afghanistan, for example, the overthrow of the Taliban has achieved remarkably little and the so far futile hunt for Osama bin Laden has yielded no appreciable result other than the castigation of US politicians who say that the so far futile hunt for Osama bin Laden has yielded no appreciable result. The bulk of Afghanistan remains in the hands of warlords. The celebrated emancipation of women has been reversed. The only true success story has been the revitalization of the heroin trade which is reportedly back to its pre-invasion levels supplying up to 90% of the European market. Meanwhile, the authority of the besieged President Karzai, despite being aided by an array of foreign troops, seems restricted to downtown Kabul. The prospects in Iraq (with the threat of a three-way civil war awaiting US withdrawal) are little better as the “post-conflict” casualty count continues to climb.

With all this in mind, Ignatieff’s “realism” asserts itself. Accepting the value of a US thunderbolt strike (once called a “blitzkrieg”) and the prospect of subsequent UN, NATO or regional “coalition” support to clean up the mess, the plan seems to be pre-emptively to attack apprehended enemies and bring them to heel. Meanwhile, democracy—while pleasant—may be deemed an unrealistic goal (the beneficiaries of Western invasions, after all, may not know what’s good for them and may be inclined to make the wrong choices). Still, stability is better than nothing; besides, an argument can be made that even in the USA, male pattern democracy had to wait seventy years after the Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal” and so on—for Andrew Jackson to extend the franchise to the majority of free (almost exclusively white) men.

An old acquaintance of the author, philosopher Howard Adelman of York University, explains Ignatieff’s views as partly derived from his family heritage. In his concise and perceptive essay, “Michael Ignatieff’s Theory of Imperial Intervention,” Adelman argues that Ignatieff’s ambivalent attitude—a combination of identification and repulsion—toward the Russian nationalism of his ancestry has led to the internal inconsistencies that have been resolved only in an acceptance of Hobbesian internationalism. According to Adelman, Michael Ignatieff believes that “any Leviathan, even an imperial one … is better than the potential regression into a state of nature.”

This is distressing. Michael Ignatieff’s father, George Ignatieff, was a child refugee from Bolshevik Russia. He became a renowned Canadian diplomat, a distinguished academic, and Chancellor of the University of Toronto. His name will be forever linked to the university’s program in peace and conflict studies. Michael Ignatieff’s ambitions, by contrast, have landed him in the empire’s intellectual centre. He is currently the Director of the Carr Center of Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, academic home to the best and the brightest who once brought Vietnam to a television near you. A diverse and prolific writer, he has produced award-winning memoirs, a novel that was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and an abundance of academic and popular writing. His international reputation now exceeds his father’s. It would be a better world if it did not.

Howard A. Doughty, B.A.(York), M.A.(Hawaii), M.A.(York), M.Ed.(Toronto), teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright ©
2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology