This article originally appeared in American Sociological Association Section on Human Rights Quarterly Newsletter-Winter 2014.
As I took my plunge into a warm rice pudding, it finally hit me. For nearly two hours, I had the fortune of having the undivided attention of a man who has seen it all. Michael Ignatieff has been an influential thinker ever since I began studying ethnic conflicts and human rights in the 1990s. He rose to prominence with his book/documentary, Blood and Belonging (1993), which chronicled the centrifugal forces of ethnic national-
ism that were plaguing the post-Cold War world. As a journalist, he was on the ground, avoiding gun fires in former Yugoslavia, sharing drinks with Crimean Tatar nationalists in Ukraine, and breaking baguettes with separatists in Quebec. His journey through regions ravaged by ethnic conflicts revealed the depth of yearning for belonging and the need for nuanced understanding of the complicated historical and geopolitical contexts of each situation.
In the early 2000s, he left indelible marks on human rights scholarship with his lucid and eloquent articulation of human rights principles in Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (2001). He sought to rescue the concept of human rights from the heavy baggage that it carried in international politics – the heftiest item in the bag being the label of Western imposition – and articulated how human rights should be seen as individual-based, historically-justified principles of minimum protection of human agency whose foundations need not be found in one political culture.
After 9/11, when the world was convulsed by the threat of terrorism, and policy-makers were struggling to cope with it without surrendering the cherished rights and freedoms, Ignatieff laid out principled strategies
to avoid the twin-pitfall of “moral perfectionism” and “false necessity” (The Lesser Evil, 2004). The former values rights principles over anything else, including our survival, and the latter overestimates terrorist threats and moves our liberal democracies closer to totalitarian police states. He advocates for the lesser evil approach,
which allows for a use of interrogation methods that “push suspects to the limits of their psychological en- durance”. Such methods are permitted only on the condition that they involve no physical damage and that they be conducted with tight scrutiny and adversarial justification that meet the accountability standards of not just the domestic jurisprudence but also the inter- national human rights system.
By that point, it was plenty clear that Ignatieff is never afraid of going against the grain. He weighs different moral claims logically, using history as a guide. Even
if his deliberation leads to an unpopular conclusion – such as the use of psychological exhaustion to extract information that saves many lives – he is not one to shy away from ruffling feathers in his own circle of liberal scholars and practitioners committed to human rights.
In 2005, he accepted an invitation to apply his impressive skillset to real world politics. He thrived in the brutal world of politics, winning multiple elections and leading the main opposition party in Canada until the bitter end in 2011 (see Fire and Ashes 2012). He is back in academia now, teaching future leaders of the human rights field at the Kennedy School and traveling across the globe in his capacity as the head of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. After see- ing the worst kinds of carnage that ethnic conflicts can produce, the most frustrating inefficacies in the policy- making world, and both the sincere intellectual pur- suits and the snooty condescension of human rights scholars, he was sitting next to me at a nice Tappas restaurant in Ann Arbor, listening to me babble on about my research, the state of human rights scholarship, and recommendations for places to visit during his upcoming trip to Japan.
The next day, he gave a sterling lecture entitled Human Rights and the Challenges of Authoritarian Capitalism. The standing room only audience was treated to his engaging and masterful presentation of a new frame- work to understand the reemergence of China and Russia. As outlined in his recent piece in the New York Review of Books, “The New World Disorder”, he sees in the reemergence of China and Russia the rise of a new form of government. Authoritarian capitalism mixes repression in public spheres with private freedom. It takes full advantage of global capitalism, embracing international trade and avoiding economic autarky.
To the extent this leads to economic growth, enough citizens reap the economic benefits, even if the distribution is not entirely equal. It also uses nationalism cleverly to create “us against the liberal West” mentality. At the same time, the government tightly controls in- formation flows and shows little hesitation in crushing public protest. Citizens can gripe about their situation at a family dinner table but if they gather in a public place for collective voicing of dissent, virtual or physical, they risk their freedoms and even their lives. This combination of authoritarian governance and capitalist economy has produced surprisingly stable and resilient regimes in China, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary among others.
We, in the West, cast a critical eye toward these regimes. Political freedom is nonnegotiable even though we accept that civil/political rights and economic/ social rights are indivisible. Those regimes cannot last much longer because the growth of middle class will inevitably lead to claims for democracy and collapse of the regime. Ignatieff cautions against these optimistic and biased views. We need to understand that there are other models of governance than the one we hold as sacred. And those regimes can more than stay afloat as long as they deliver what the citizens need. Citizens need many things and no government can provide all
of them. Liberal democracies are good at providing civil and political rights but they can be a mess politically and they have normalized staggering levels of economic inequality. Authoritarian capitalism seems unbearably repressive to our Western eyes, but it can be effective in providing what citizens need the most, a decent life and a sense of satisfaction about their nation’s place in the world. Thus, these regimes might be much more durable than we think.
Other non-Western countries are taking notice. Here, Ignatieff debunks the myth that authoritarian capital- ism lacks soft power. It is an attractive model not only for dictators and tyrants, but also for citizens ravaged by war and poverty. They might opt for a social con- tract of authoritarian capitalism over liberal democracy, knowing full well that they are giving the government a free hand in running their public life. But how can
we blame them when we have failed so many times in building a stable political system in the developing world? China and Russia know our credibility deficit in this regard and are actively exporting their model, of- fering no-strings-attached aid packages.
Ignatieff fully recognizes that these authoritarian capitalist regimes could crumble down if economic growth stops, and that it is an especially harsh system for persecuted minorities. Liberal democracies still hold many advantages over authoritarian capitalism, but before sounding a premature death knell for the latter, Ignatieff argues, we should look in the mirror and fix some unacceptable wrongs in our supposed liberal democracies. Most notably, the toxic influence of money in politics and extreme inequalities. And let us not forget, the US is seen as a police state that intercepts private conversations among its citizens as well as world leaders.
Having said all this, we cannot just ignore all the human rights violations under authoritarian capitalism. And if it spreads to more countries, we cannot sit idly by to let all those regimes repress their citizens. On this, Ignatieff is realistic. It is hard to change the behavior of major powers like China and Russia, just as it is hard to get the US to abide by the international human rights standards (see Ignatieff’s edited volume, American Exceptionalism and Human Rights, 2005). Their veto pow- er in the UN Security Council precludes any chance for coercive changes. But they are part of the international human rights regime. China and Russia are party to many UN human rights treaties with monitoring bodies (more than the US), which means that their human rights records in terms of torture, racial discrimination, children’s rights, and economic and social rights can
all be scrutinized by the respective committees (China has also ratified the CEDAW and Russia has ratified the ICCPR). In addition, they have to go through the Universal Periodic Review in the UN Human Rights Council every four years. Granted, these bodies rely on naming and shaming methods that might not have much quick impact. But that is how the international human rights regime has operated throughout its existence. For now, our only hope is to find a way to make it work.
What a treat it was. Not the rice pudding, as good as
it was, but having a chance to discuss human rights politics with Michael Ignatieff. I wondered why it is so rare to have a scholar with a wide vision and counter- intuitive insight like him in our field. In our ever more balkanized academic environment, we have a tendency to get mired in details of our research and miss the big picture. In our principles-oriented community of human rights scholars, our normative commitment might be shielding us from different views on reality. Whether we agree with Ignatieff’s views or not, we should all strive to see the forest not just the trees and constantly ask ourselves whether the lens through which we look at them may be tainted.
Please visit the Human Rights Initiative website for a recording of Michael Ignatieff’s lecture.
Kiyoteru Tsutsui’s research focuses on global diffusion of human rights and its impact on local politics. He has conducted (1) cross- national quantitative analyses on how human rights ideas and institutions expanded and impacted local politics, and (2) qualita- tive case studies on the impact of global human rights on minority rights activism and discourse around WWII in Japan. In addition to government practices and activism by civil society actors his recent research examines corporate behavior around social respectability initiatives. His research has appeared in American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, Social Problems, and other social science journals, and he recently co-edited Corporate Social Responsibility in a Globalizing World (Cambridge University Press, 2015).