Thursday, January 12, 2006

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Michael Ignatieff.... politician

David Sax has an essay on Foreign Policy's web site about Harvard Professor Michael Ignatieff's quixotic move towards politics. Ignatieff is the flip-side of all the anti-war/anti-Bush protestors who threatened to move to Canada and then didn't; he supported the war but has decided to move to Canada... and run for Parliament:

Canadians normally don’t 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 University’s 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....

“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 don’t 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 he’s 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 he’s 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 lose—a 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. “I’ve gone into politics to test what you can achieve if you believe certain things,” says Ignatieff. “If I’m 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 don’t do so first.

Ignatieff is in a can't lose situation. Wither he wins and climbs the ladder of Liberal Party politics -- or he loses and writes a book that's excerpted in the New York Times Magazine about what it's like to be a candidate who speaks truth to power.

posted by Dan on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM


Today, Chris Huhne, economist by training, long-time financial journalist (Economist, Guardian, Independent) and somewhat of an Intellectual, decided to run for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in the UK. He won't win, but I'm always interested how people like him end up in politics.

Are there any good examples of former academics or intellectuals becoming really good political leaders?

posted by: ab on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Paul Wellstone and Fernando Henrique Cardoso are the only academics-turned-politicians that come to mind.

posted by: Brad on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Manhoman Singh, the PM of India was (and is) a noted economist. Also, the current President of India (an admittedly figurehead position) is a scientist who worked on both India's nuclear and missile program.
I'm not sure either ever taught at a University though.

posted by: erg on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the president of Latvia, was a professor of psychology for 33 years.

posted by: Adrian on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Woodrow Wilson was probably the most famous example.

posted by: johnnymeathead on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Zoran Djindjic, late PM of Serbia from 2001-03, was a professor of philosophy. He got his PhD from Konstanz with Habermas.

posted by: mrs.piggy on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Actually, there's one way he can lose -- he can knuckle under in order to get elected and join the chorus within the Liberal Party, espousing all the policies that he criticized as an independent academic.

Ignatieff picked the wrong party for his foreign policy ideas.

That said, if he could drag it kicking and screaming into reality, he will have done his country a great service...

posted by: Ben on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

"... about what it's like to be a candidate who speaks truth to power. "

If that's what you want to call it.

posted by: Barry on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Madame Ceausescu, late dictatress of Romania, was said to be an award-winning (domestic only) genius in chemistry. But I doubt she meets the "really good leader" criterion. Her husband was a cobbler by trade. How many cobblers have gone on to successful political careers?

posted by: Joel on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Portrait of the Courier Academic as a Politician

BTW, since its my area, Blood and Belonging is basically a semi-scholarly account of nationalism, jumping on a topic that was hot in the 90s. We're not talking a Gellner, Anderson, Hobsbawm, Smith, or Breuilly here. Not even Brubaker or Laitin. We're talking a popularizer. I don't know his work in IR; is it similarly second rate?

posted by: Mitchell Young on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

"Woodrow Wilson was probably the most famous example."

An example of an academician-turned-politician, indeed, but certainly not a good one. Besides being an ardent segregationist and terrible racist even for the standards of his time, Wilson was also the kiss-up to the bankers and arms merchants who got the US involved in WWI-- one of the worst foreign policy blunders of the 20th century, a needless intervention that prevented the best result (i.e., a total stalemate in Europe with all sides realizing their stupidity early on rather than prolonging it later), paving the way for the totalitarian bloodshed of the next two decades.

For all Wilson's platitudes about "fighting for freedom" and a "war to make the world safe for democracy," he was strangely indifferent to the fact that by sending in hundreds of thousands of US troops to help France and Britain-- then the world's two biggest, most ruthless imperialists-- he was essentially helping them to push the boot further down to brutalize the Irish (who were massacred in 1916 by the British, with hardly a protest by Wilson), not to mention the Indians, the Boers and the many other peoples the British had been slaughtering en masse in their own concentration camps or civilian terror campaigns before 1914. Germany and Austria-Hungary were small potatoes in comparison to the truly global oppression of the British in particular, which is ironic, since the World Wars and the brutal attacks by Germany (as well as the Turks at Gallipoli and especially the Japs in '42) destroyed the British Empire. But Europe and the world in general would have been served well by a nice, big stalemate in 1918 like those which had concluded so many European Wars in the 1700's, to convince the resident idiots in charge of those countries that all the new gee-whiz technology of that era only made their wars bigger, bloodier, and even stupider than they were before.

On top of all this, it was Woodrow Wilson who basically enabled the British and French to go in and carve up the Ottoman Empire after 1918, which led of course to the British cobbling together the pseudo-nation of "Iraq" in 1920 to help them get access to the oil. When the Iraqis had the gall to rise up against the Brits in response to all the broken promises and aggression, the British did the same sort of thing they did to the Indians when the darkies in South Asia got uppity-- terror-bombed civilians and brutalized the entire countryside. Didn't work this time, as the Kurds in particular kept fighting and ousted the Brits by 1930. (The Afghans had defeated the British earlier in the 1800's in the Anglo-Afghan Wars with far greater effectiveness and much more rapidly.) But of course, the pseudo-nation of Iraq remained, with all its contradictions and the inevitable selection of a strongman to keep the rival peoples in line. Thus the mess in Iraq in 2006.

The disaster of the current Iraq War is largely a consequence of the screw-ups by the British in the 1920's there-- and by that pious hypocrite of an idiot named Woodrow Wilson in the US. Wilson was by far the worst US President of the 20th century, if not in the nation's entire history as a whole.

posted by: Fast Eddie on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Vaira Vike-Freiberga is also Canadian, she grew up in Montreal.

I heard Ignatieff lecture at the LSE on his 'Warrior' book. He's a great lecturer. I have never heard the evolution and acceptance of human rights explained better.

At the time Ignatieff was thinking about ways we could advance human rights to non-western, irregular conflicts. This was the mid-nineties and he'd visted Afghanistan for research. His idea was that human rights are imbeded in all cultures, even if only in embyronic form.

He felt masculine warrior codes could be profitably expanded in order to convince different groups to accept and internalize something like western human rights.

He pointed out the universal nature of concepts like honour, warrior codes close to the Samuri bushido code are found in many cultures, even if they are not followed.

Basically he hoped to link masculine warrior codes of behaviour to a universal standard of how all people should be treated, as had somewhat happened in the west. Essentially, he recognized, when dealing with groups like the Taliban, and trying to get them to act better, you had to work with the material you were given.

Obviously, post-Sept 11th, getting the Taliban to fight more honourably seems a little redundant. Getting the Bosnian Serbs to behave decently seemed ridiculous enough at the time.

The guy sitting beside me loudly proclaimed at the end of one of the lectures that it was all 'typical anglo-saxon crap'. Probably something to that.

But, how many other people at the time (mid-nineties) were seriously trying to think of ways to civilize irregular warefare (which seemed everywhere) and advance human rights?

Didn't he recant 'Empire Lite'?

Most of the criticism in his riding has focused on his extended stay outside the country, his supposed 'trashing' of Ukranian nationalism (his riding has one of the highest concentrations of Ukranians in the country, and the manner in which his nomination was secured.

The federal Liberal party thrust him upon the local riding association, alienating many local activists who, normally, probably would be supporting him.

Also, even people who support Liberal policies are tired of the party after 11 years and four governments.

I find his decision to entire Canadian politics now, badly timed. To say the least.

posted by: wsam on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Academics turned politicians:
Clement Atlee, who taught at the LSE, and Harold Wilson, who taught economics at Oxford before joining the Labour Party.
Also Hugh Gaitskell, Richard Crossman, and a great many other Labour politicians -- but Atlee and Wilson are the only academics to become PM so far as I can think. (Ramsay MacDonald wanted to pursue an academic career, but was prevented by poverty).
However, if Gordon Brown ever does manage to succeed Tony Blair, he'll be a third one, having taught at Edinburgh University.
It seems a much more common phenomenon in Britain than in the US.

posted by: Josh on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Oh, I don't know if Wilson is the worst US president of the 20th century. Remember that both Warren Harding and Richard Nixon both fit the criteria, and that if ineffectualness is factored in, we could add Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. So far the worst president ever, at least in terms of overall corruption under his watch, foreign policy blunders, blatant disregard for the rule of law, and gross incompetence appears to be George W. Bush. Say what you will about Wilson, Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, U.S. Grant, and some of the other doozies, but W is really setting an abysmal standard I hope we as a nation never have to confront again.

posted by: Spoerri on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

That said, if he could drag it kicking and screaming into reality, he will have done his country a great service...

Very funny

Sez Professor and all-around expert Mike Ignatieff: "'s not clear why the President keeps pretending that Saddam does not already possess weapons of mass destruction"

posted by: WF on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Also: "The purpose of American policy should not be to overthrow Saddam: that is for his own people to do, and American attempts to do so may well only strengthen him."

So that's 0 out of 2. Unless, of course, we're talking about some parallel reality.

posted by: WF on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Former Canadian PM Trudeau was another academic turned politician, and is likely a model (whether consciously or unconsciously) for Ignatieff.

posted by: Joel Fleming on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

Hey Dan-

Big typo there in the first sentence. "Way" should read "war".

posted by: ZachF on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

As I read this I am struck by the absense of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Both were scholars of titanic stature, possibly the last true renaissanse men. Jefferson was probably the most bookish man in the Americas; his personal library became the seed that grew into the Library of Congress, and was likely the largest private library in North America at the time.

Both leave a nation as the legacy by which we can measure their worths, as well as their values. While Jefferson was possibly more of a statesman than a politician, it was his presidency that made the Louisiana Purchase, possibly illegally, which added more real estate and resources to this nation than any other president, and almost any leader in world history, was ever able to do. (That, in order to do this, he "reinterpreted" the powers the constitution gave him, just might qualify him as a modern style politician)

Franklin was a politician of impressive stature. Sure, he was of the diplomatic variety, but definitely a wielder of the skills that encompass the classic definition of politics. He convinced nobles in France to send support to the colonial rebels, in spite of the fact that the ideals of American Revolution ran counter to those of the French nobility. Significantly, he did so without selling control over any of the disputed land. I would say that qualifies him as quite a politician.

Both were astoundingly effective leaders, though neither ever sought the limelight. Perhaps that is why they qualify as "really good political leaders"--neither sought out personal political power.

posted by: marcus moon on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

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posted by: ytqwecabj ujawm on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

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posted by: ytqwecabj ujawm on 01.12.06 at 09:55 AM [permalink]

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