Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 9805/9841
Original Air Date: February 3, 1998
Rebroadcast Air Date: October 13, 1998


Michael Ignatieff, author, The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

JEFF MARTIN, Producer: This is Common Ground.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: We have to actually now see, you know, corpses chopped up, not merely
corpses dead. The corpses have to be babies. There’s a kind of constant inflation of the shock
level at which we’re prepared to act.

MARTIN: In this edition of Common Ground, journalist and author Michael Ignatieff
reflects on what he has learned from his experiences covering bloody civil wars in Europe, Africa
and Asia this decade.

IGNATIEFF: They’ve got to be told, “You cannot expect anybody else but yourself to do this.”
‘Cause nobody cares fundamentally.

MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events.
It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.

FEMALE VOICE: What needs to be understood more clearly, however pessimistic the implications,
is that when conscience is the only link between rich and poor, north and south, zones of safety and
zones of danger, it is a weak link indeed.

MARTIN: That is a passage and a major theme from Michael Ignatieff’s new book, The Warrior’s Honor:
Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience
. The end of the Cold War has reduced anxiety over the
prospect of nuclear annihilation, but it has not brought peace to many parts of the world. In fact,
it’s quite the opposite. In places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Angola, Afghanistan, Burundi, and many more,
the 1990s have been years of bloody civil war. And often futile attempts to limit the damage they
do. Michael Ignatieff has spent time in the midst of those countries. His new book is full of insights
into what is happening in the world today. I interviewed him last Fall at his apartment in London:
At its core, how do you characterize what the book is about?

IGNATIEFF: I think the thing that struck me when I began to make a series of journeys,
it’s a book that begins out of journeys: to Bosnia, to Rwanda, to Burundi, to Angola, to Afghanistan;
to a lot of horrible places where they’re horrible because the post-Cold War world is being fought
out in these places. I suppose what I was focused on mostly was the relationship between these zones
of danger and the zones of safety where we come from. That’s my chief focus. And what’s the ethical
relationship between zones of safety and zones of danger? Why is it that we think these places are
our business? Why should be care about them at all? And if we get involved, what are we getting
ourselves involved in? And if we try and do good, what happens when we try? What happens when we
fail? Do we get the good we tried to achieve? Those kind of questions. So it’s an attempt to
think above all about the moral relations that connect zones of safety and zones of danger in the
post-Cold War world.

MARTIN: During the Cold War all the focus was on the U.S.-Soviet divide and the great
threat of nuclear holocaust. That’s much less of a threat in the minds of people these days. And
yet it’s hard for, I mean people don’t have a sense that the world is at peace. What is your sort
of take overall on the dynamic that’s going on, particularly in the places that you traveled.

IGNATIEFF: Well I think there are two narratives, really. And one is a narrative of globalization.
I mean it’s obvious that New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Sydney, Australia—are now
linked together in a fiber optic cable, 24-hour, computerized trading environment. And we’re living in
that zone ourselves. If you live in the zones of safety you live in this world where data is flying
by in gigabytes, in milliseconds. Then there’s a completely other world out there. The zone of danger,
where you’re dealing with often conflicts that look like medieval throwbacks, or throwbacks to our
medieval past. Countries which are going backwards, not forwards. We’re hurtling ahead into the
next millennium and these places seem to be hurtling backwards into stages of civilization that
we’ve left. And so you have two narratives; one of globalization and another narrative of chaos.
And frankly, it’s very difficult to connect the two. I mean, in the 19th Century you
could connect the—and even you could connect into the, throughout the Imperial Era—you could
connect zones of safety and zones of danger together. When Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness
the imperial powers in the zones of safety would go out into the zones of danger to extract ivory
and copper and gold all this kind of stuff. What strikes me now is that these are zones of danger
that nobody needs. I mean, an American citizen can plausibly ask, “What the hell are we doing
in Angola?” Or Zaire, or these places? We have no economic interest, we have no apparent
geostrategic interest. It’s this disconnection at the geostrategic and economic level that strikes me.
And then in place of that disconnection we’ve tried to put in a moral connection, a humanitarian connection.
And I think that the conclusion that I’m drawing is that the humanitarian and moral connection is quite weak.

MARTIN: Why? Why isn’t it stronger?

IGNATIEFF: The humanitarian and moral connection between zones of safety and zones of danger
is created by the post-war history of universal human rights as much as anything. That’s the tissue
that links us together. The sense that we’re one species, we’re all flesh and blood. We suffer the
same kinds of hurt and the same kinds of hunger. And out of that came a human rights culture, which
means that people do feel morally that someone starving in Burundi; it is our business. But that moral
connection is undercut or undermined by a sense of just geostrategic indifference. That is, the sense
that if Burundi goes up and people begin slaughtering each other there, it’s not really going to affect
the vital strategic interests of the United States. So that strategic interests and humanitarian
interests have driven apart. In the 1940s, if you go back to one of the great glory hours of
American foreign policy, the Marshall Plan, there humanitarian interests and geostrategic
interests were yoked together. Putting Europe back on its feet, feeding the hungry and starving in
Europe made immense geostrategic sense ’cause you had the Russian enemy. Now you have a situation
where humanitarian impulses and geostrategic impulses are going in contradictory directions.
I can make a case to the American people that it really isn’t good for the world if Africa goes to
hell. I can make a case that the world as a whole is a safer place if you have stable states in
Africa. But the case has, the impact of a stable Africa on America is second and third and fourth o
rder. It’s a very indirect kind of case. But there’s nothing like the immediate strategic interests
that the Cold War provided. And I think humanitarians who are argue that there is are deluding the
public. In fact, the split between geostrategic and humanitarian interests is a real one. And humanitarian
workers and aid workers have discovered that you can put pictures of starving babies onto the Web
site and onto the front pages and you always will get a decent response because American people are by
and large very generous and decent people, as Europeans are. But it’s a kind of weak connection.
You run your check card through the thing once or twice and it kind of dies. It’s not very strong.

MARTIN: You are kind of hard on the human rights culture that developed. Is it that you
think the conceptualization of the human rights culture is weak, or just that it doesn’t provide,
as you were saying, a good rationale for engagement?

IGNATIEFF: The human rights culture is an enormous historical achievement, since the Second World War.
There really wasn’t anything to rival it before, in the inter-war period. And it’s just possible
that we would have had a much more robust reaction to Nazism and Stalinism had we had a stronger
human rights culture. So I don’t want to say anything that tears it down. But there are problems
with the human rights culture. Some of them have to do with the inflation of human rights language
on the one hand; that is, everything is now a human right: your right to have holidays is a human
right apparently equivalent to your right to have your life preserved. There’s an inflation in the
language. Nobody knows exactly what a human right really is anymore. That’s Problem One. Then there’s
a problem it seems to me about relativism. In other words, what’s the relationship between human
rights standards and cultural custom and practice. And that’s not as clear as it looks. I mean it’s
really difficult sometimes. And the place where that’s at a flashpoint is in the Muslim world.
The third problem with human rights is much more subtle and that has to do with a kind of utopianism
in it. The idea in the Universal Human Rights Declaration, declares almost in the first article,
“all human beings should live in brotherhood and peace with each other.” I can’t remember
the exact words but that’s kind of what it is. Well, the world has had small wars going on since
1945 in which almost 50 million people have died. Shouldn’t the human rights culture simply
acknowledge perhaps that war is not always the worst thing in the world? Wars are sometimes a
solution to a problem and not part of the problem itself. In other words, there is a countervailing
tradition in the European tradition which is the laws of war tradition. Which says, “No,
let’s not stop people fighting. Let’s just make sure that when people fight they fight according
to the rules.” Well, that’s not the language of human rights. It’s a very different language.
In other words, we have very tough ethical choices to make and sometimes it may be the case that
human rights language is a little unrealistic in dealing with the world we’re dealing with.

MARTIN: In one of your essays you talk about the level of interest that we have in other parts
of the world and particularly add in the new dimension for the late 20th Century, which
is the role of television in doing this. Can you talk a little bit about what peculiar things you
think television, what effect it has?

IGNATIEFF: Television has changed the moral relations between zones of safety and zones of
danger. It’s brought the two zones closer together. There’s a kind of instantaneous real time relationship
between these zones that didn’t exist before. But I think it’s important not to overstress the
novelty of television. I mean we’ve, in the European and American tradition, had a sense that strangers
far away are our business at least since the 19th Century. Britain’s prime minister Gladstone
was protesting the Turkish treatment of Christians in the late 19th Century long before
television. Television didn’t create these moral relations, but it’s helped to heighten everybody’s
sensitivity to foreign suffering. You can’t simply close the door on it anymore. It’s coming into your
living room. So that’s obvious enough. I think the thing, and aid agencies and relief workers have
discovered that television is a tremendous mobilizer of constituencies, a tremendous mobilizer of
funds. But now I think that everybody is beginning to see the backlash effect or the side effects
of television. The sense that television focuses on some crises—Bosnia for example—and cast others
into utter darkness. I mean, who knows what’s going on in East Timor? But it’s very bad and television
isn’t there. And modern despots are discovering that the surest way to keep domestic civil wars under
control is actually to keep television out. ‘Cause then you’ve got it under domestic control and you
can do whatever you want inside. And domestic tyrants are becoming much more ruthless in their news
management techniques. And then there’s also, in the story of compassion fatigue, in the story about
why it is that we can actually watch people die on our television screens and not do anything with
some of this. Some of it simply has to do with overexposure on television. The sense in which television
presents us with this constant promiscuous and ever-debased coinage of human suffering. And people’s nerve
endings get deader and deader and deader. We have to actually now see, you know, corpses chopped up, not
merely corpses dead. The corpses have to be babies. There’s a kind of constant inflation of the shock level
at which we’re prepared to act. And there is some sense in which television contributes to that.
The other thing that’s now happening of course is that television is pulling out of this. It’s not the case
we actually live in a global village. Television’s coverage of the world is incredibly partial. Foreign bureaus
are closing. The number of documentaries on foreign subjects is declining. The number of shows like this that
talk about foreign affairs at all is declining. So that it’s a kind of fiction to say that television has created
this world of instantaneous global communication. What it gives us is a world in which the whole world is obsessed
with O.J., not with issues of justice or fairness or global distribution. So we’ve got to learn that television in a
curious way has changed much less than we thought, in a sense. The partiality of the European and American gaze,
the imperial gaze, is still as partial as ever.

MARTIN: We’ll take a break here. Our guest in this edition of Common Ground is Michael Ignatieff.
His new book is called The Warrior’s Honor.
Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of
the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit,
non-partisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue
on world affairs.
Here’s another key passage from The Warrior’s Honor:

FEMALE VOICE: The most useful element of Freud’s idea is the perception that as external differences between groups
diminish, symbolic differences become more salient. As less and less distinguishes you from anybody else, the more important
it becomes to wear the differentiating mask.

MARTIN: Civil wars usually involve groups of people who, to the outside world, look very much alike, engaged in
incredibly bloody conflict, which in recent years has often descended into crimes against humanity. How do these things get
so savage? Michael Ignatieff explores that question in a chapter titled, “The Narcissism of Minor Differences.”
It is a term he found in Sigmund Freud.

IGNATIEFF: That is, it’s a phrase that Sigmund Freud used in a whole bunch of essays. It began to be, it began as his
attempt to explain why it was that if men and women shared so many genetic elements in common, they focus so neurotically in
their encounters with each other on the minor elements that differentiated them. And he then began to work on, noticed that
the same thing was happening with groups. That two towns that were side-by-side and were absolutely the same were fierce rivals
over football or something. And then he noticed that nations were doing that. And he focused on the paradox, which I think is very
important, that the smaller the real differences between human groups, the larger those differences loom in their imaginations. So
that in the case of ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Croats and Serbs will tell you that they are utterly different kinds
of people, but actually they share much the same ethnic stock. The religious differences that divide them are less salient now than
they were two generations ago. And you literally can’t tell them apart. And yet they’re blood enemies. And I wanted to understand
the paradox of that. Because there are two stories you can tell about ethnic war in the 1990s. One of them is that this is the
kind of upsurge of ancient tribal enmities and antagonisms. A semi-racial, semi-genetic kind of conflict between antagonistic
groups that have nothing in common.Or you can tell a very, very different and much, in a way, more tragic story of groups that
actually used to get along pretty well. And whose differences are relatively small, being suddenly
turned into enemies. And then you have to understand the dynamic of that. How it became possible.
And I located the key to that really in the collapse of states. I think nobody’s put enough
emphasis on the crucial role of the modern state in keeping difference minor. I mean, in setting
up institutions, common institutions that people can share and that prevent them from exacerbating
their minor differences into major ones. And preventing it so, making sure that the state sets a
kind of frame over everybody’s head. A kind of arch over everybody’s head that prevents conflict
becoming zero-sum, that prevents all individual conflicts becoming group conflicts and social
And there are a lot of implications about that, about what you learn in zones of war, there are a
lot of implications about American society and European society. I mean, what holds the ring in
our society, what prevents them being disfigured by ethnic war, is a juridical state, is the rule
of law. It’s not because we’re so much nicer and so much more civilized and so much more superior
to the primitive tribes fighting each other elsewhere in the world. It’s because we have
institutions we more or less trust. When those institutions break down, as for example when Rodney
King is beaten up on, and it seemed to occur on television, and the basic contract of fairness
between ethnic groups is flagrantly broken as it was in that case, then you get what looks like,
rather like, ethnic war. As we got in Los Angeles in ’92. So that the message that I took out of
going to the zones of danger was not how far away they were from us, but actually how close they
were to us. That is, if the narcissism of minor difference can break out into ethnic war in these
zones of danger, it can also happen closer to home. And the key thing is the legitimacy of our
institutions. And as an old-time liberal I’m a passionate believer in the rule of law. And it’s
the rule of law more than any other thing which keeps ethnic peace. And when you lose the rule of
law, when the state is taken over by one ethnic group who then proceeds to use it for their own
advantage, when the whole civic contract appears systemically unfair to one group, then you have
the preconditions of ethnic war. And you can have them anywhere; in highly civilized, developed
societies, as well as in more primitive or backward ones.

MARTIN: A lot of people are talking about the weakening of states. And so you see it as a
really dangerous situation in this context?

IGNATIEFF: Well, I do because I think there’s a lot of loose talk about globalization doing
away with the need for states. The idea as we roll into a global economy, the nation state will ebb
in salience. But that is to ignore what states do. States provide the integument of law. The
provide the security system which make markets possible in the first place. You’re not going to
have any kind of global market if there’s crime and warfare in the streets. It’s the states that
guarantee the civic conditions of order in which a global market can operate at all. And in fact
as global markets become more a dominant feature, they’re going to depend more not less on strong
states that are capable of delivering the security that those markets require. I mean, five hundred
yards from where we’re having this interview there is the biggest concentration of wealth and economic
power in this part of Europe, that is the City of London. The City of London is ringed by a ring
of steel. You walk out of this house and go down there and there are cops on every corner. There
are more closed-circuit televisions on every corner than anywhere else in Europe. Why? This is
such a crucial nexus of economic power that the British state is prepared to spend billions to
protect it against the IRA and any other terrorist who plans to attack. In other words, there’s
a real connection between effective global economic institutions and strong states. Without a
strong state we won’t have any kind of global market at all. And the problem in the zones of danger
is not that they’re riven by ancient tribal rivalries; it’s just they are struggling with weak
states that are often the legacy of the colonial liberation movements. They are states in which
imperial powers pulled out precipitously and left peoples without any of the apparatus to create
strong states. There’s nothing about Central Africa, for example, that means that they have to
have weak states forever. It may well be that Kabila and Musseveni and these figures in Central
Africa are actually in the process of consolidating the strong states that those countries need.
But the thing that I come out of my travels feeling is that more than development, more than
economic justice, more than anything, these societies need strong, legitimate states. And the
difficulty that the West has in helping these places is that they pour development aid in, they
pour advisors in; the one thing that they can’t provide, because no outsider can provide it, is a
strong state. States can only be born by the democratic processes of those societies themselves.
Creating institutions that are legitimate and strong and are believable to their own people. And
that’s an internal process. And you can have very poor societies that aren’t doing very well economically
but that have reliable, durable, legitimate states. India might be an example. It’s not a very good
state. But it’s a legitimate one. And it holds the place together. And my message, it’s perfectly
obvious, is that what the zones of danger need is governance. And that means legitimate authority.
And if they get that there’s absolutely no reason why they have to stay zones of danger forever.
So it’s not, I want to repeat, it’s not a pessimistic message. We have chaos, we have globalization.
There’s no reason why we have to have chaos in these parts of the world forever. But they absolutely
have to solve the problem of civil order.

MARTIN: If you don’t have viable states, can the international community fulfill some of
those functions and try to bring some order in those situations?

IGNATIEFF: Well, I think we’ve just lived through, from the period between the Gulf War through
the Dayton Accord, we lived through an absolutely crucial experiment in whether the international
community, quote-unquote, which mostly means the U.N. but also means NATO; it means all multilateral
outfits; and it above all means the United States, whether those outside outfits could come in an
patch failed states together. And the results are very mixed. I think it’s wrong to say that they’ve
been a complete failure. I mean Haiti has been patched together. Cambodia was patched together. Bosnia
is being patched together. They’re not failures. So I don’t want to give comfort to isolationists
who say, “Oh, this is just a mistake, let’s get out.” But they weren’t terribly successful
either. And I think the problem is why they aren’t successful is very simple: if people in those places
can’t stitch together legitimate forms of governance, outsiders will never be able to. Outsiders
can hold the ring. The international community can send in troops and keep them from clawing each
other to death. As we speak, NATO troops are keeping rival groups of Serbs from killing each other.
They can do that for a while, but they can’t do that forever. We’re in a post-imperial age. The
international community can’t come in and take over places and run them and put them back together.
At the end of the day, local groups have to sit down and create stable and legitimate states themselves.
All that the international community can do is kind of hold them apart, talk basic sense to them.
That is to say, “If you don’t fix this, you’re done for.” I’ve heard Boutros Ghali and
other world leaders do that. That you can do. You sit the guys down, you say, “You want to kill
each other? You want to kill each other to the last man? Go ahead. Don’t expect the international
community to bail you out.” Tough talk, tough love, is terribly important here because one of
the perverse effects of having something called the international community is all these small places
look outside for some outsider to come and help them out. And it becomes an alibi for not doing anything
themselves. They become kind of like welfare-dependents. They become dependent on the international system.
A lot of that happened in Bosnia. Bosnians sit there saying, “Well we can’t solve it, we must have
the great United States, we must have the British, the French, the Russians, someone to solve our
problems.” They’ve got to be told, “You cannot expect anybody else but yourself to do this.” ‘Cause nobody cares fundamentally. Nobody really does care. I’m a great internationalist.
I feel profound commitment to these places. But I think it’s dishonest to go to these places and
say, “We care. We’re going to sort you out. We’re going to work hand-in-hand.” No!
The reality is, the only people who can create viable, stable states are the people themselves.
And that’s the lesson I take away. And that’s the lesson I think they often have to learn.

MARTIN: My guest in this edition of Common Ground has been journalist and author
Michael Ignatieff. His new book is entitled The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern
For Common Ground, I’m Jeff Martin.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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