Skip to content or view screen version

Michael Ignatieff and "Empire Lite".

lenin | 01.04.2004 21:12 | Anti-militarism

Ignatieff. Don't let the name fool you, he really is a terrific moron...

Not without justice, you might think, Michael Ignatieff dubs America an “Empire Lite” in his eponymous book on the theme of humanitarian intervention. True, it has no colonies, no Raj, no satraps and no armies breaking open markets (well, leave the last one to linger). But, it does exercise global domination of unprecedented scale through its economic and military power, strictly ordering the international division of labour in its own image. It exercises regulative rather than constitutive power, determining the destiny of nations from afar but without the burdens associated with imperial tutelage. Now, for Ignatieff, this is no rebuke. He claims he has no interest in the use of the term ‘empire’ as an epithet, but only as a descriptive term enabling a sensible discussion of American power and its limits. The key question, he avers, “is whether empire lite is enough to get the job done”. Precisely what that “job” is becomes apparent in the rest of the book. (Introduction, Page 3).

Focussing on three fronts of American power – namely Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan – Ignatieff seeks to draw out some of the ways in which a modern empire, even one in denial as America is, is compelled to dispose of its power for the general good. His style is that of reportage, getting down on the ground and talking to the people who make it all happen. So, in Kosovo he has a chat with Bernard Kouchner, the former head of Medicin Sans Frontiere, and current proconsul to the region. He acts, Ignatieff reports, as an imperial governor, quelling disputes here, banning newspapers there when they threaten a revival of ethnic tensions, trying "to create political trust where none exists; to create democracy where none has ever taken root before”. (Page 72). Kouchner’s history as a soixant-huitard and then as a Socialist Party man as discussed perfunctorily. His courtship of the media is considered as an extension of his humanitarian work, while his work for the state is treated in light of his doctrine that humanitarianism cannot be divorced from politics and government.

A heroically sympathetic treatment of Kouchner as a humanitarian functions as a displacement for actually discussing the empirical imperial reasoning behind the Kosovo intervention, and the actuality of the occupation in Kosovo, which is only discussed in apologetic terms. Yes, there are problems but, as Kouchner complains, the media are only interested in failure. (Page 75). If everything were working fine, there would be no cameras in Kosovo. Indeed, the thought that simply asking the “imperial governor” for his opinion on the matter might not provide the most balanced or insightful view of the situation hardly seems to have occurred to Ignatieff. The reason for this is not mysterious. Ignatieff was one of the most passionately exercised liberals in favour of that particular intervention, and presumably has no particular desire to depict it as having led to a dysfunctional hotbed of nationalism, ethnic cleansing, corruption, child prostitution, and racist murder. Indeed, Ignatieff simply takes the Nato case for granted. The Nato bombardment "stopped Milosevic" and put a halt to his ethnic cleansing, even if the facts say otherwise. (Page 52). It was "the use of imperial power to support a self-determination claim by a national minority". (Pages 70-1).



- Homepage: