The Use of Force

In Blood and Belonging (1993) Michael Ignatieff wrote as follows:

“If I had supposed , as the Cold War came to an end, that the new world might be ruled by philosophers and poets, it was because I believed , foolishly, that the precarious civility and order of the states in which I live must be what all people rationally desire…’

His optimism was short-lived:  ‘…liberal civilisation – the rule of laws, not men, of argument in place of force, of compromise in place of violence – runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved only be the most unremitting struggle against human nature.’ He argues that tolerance, compromise, reason cannot be preached to those who are mad with fear or mad with vengeance.

And yet, to my mind, those liberal values run deep, they do not run against the human grain. But they need peace in which to express themselves. Violence and compassion – these are the polarities.

Ignatieff supported the Iraq war, and this troubles me.  Ten years earlier, in 1993, he’d written:  ‘We must be prepared to defend them [our values] by force … the failure to do so has left the hungry nations sick with contempt for us.’

It is I’d argue the force, the violence, of our interventions that generates contempt. The invasive, overwhelming nature of the aid and support we provide, and all its myriad and often unwelcome ties. Our contempt for other cultures.

A politics of argument and compromise cannot be introduced by force. Afghanistan is the supreme case in point. Nor (sadly) can it be introduced simply by kindness and compassion. The road is a long and complex one: that realisation is the beginning of wisdom.

[Quotations are from Paul Wilsons’ review of Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashesin the NY Review of Books (April 2014).]

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