Professor Michael Ignatieff is the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and, currently, is president and rector of the Central European University, in Budapest, Hungary. Previously Dr Ignatieff served as a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He testified (via video-conference) at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development on 30 Apr 19, when it was discussing the state of liberal democracy in Europe. Micheal Ignatieff began his testimony by saying: “One way to think about the implications of the parlous state of liberal democracy in central and eastern Europe is to situate it in a wider context. You could almost say that the Atlantic Ocean has been getting wider and wider over the last couple of generations. By that, I mean that the gap between Europe and North America is growing and is likely to grow in the future … [and, harking back to my comments about D-Day he explained that] … One reason for this is that the memory of our shared history is fading. Canadians fought and died for European liberty and freedom in two world wars, and that memory is very important in our founding myths, but the memory of it is fading from Canadians’ minds slipping out of Europeans’ memory as well. People don’t remember just how central Canada was to their story of liberty … [but, Michael Ignatieff continued] … This is having strategic implications. Our American ally, as you know, is publicly questioning the value of the North Atlantic alliance, the NATO alliance. I sometimes wonder if in the future, Canadians will begin to question the value of the NATO alliance as well. We’ve done so recurrently over time. It hasn’t become a salient issue in Canadian politics simply because it doesn’t cost us very much, and it’s not at the centre of Canadian debate, but it’s only a matter of time before Canadians start asking, “What we are doing in NATO?” … [in fact, a few Canadians have been asking that for some time and I dealt with it almost a year ago]. “On the European side,” Dr Ignatieff said, “Europeans are increasingly aware that they will have to defend themselves, that the North Atlantic alliance was the alliance that got them through the Cold War but that they’re going to have to start spending on defence and defending themselves … [and Canada, in my opinion, must do the same] … Another factor that’s changing the relationship between Europe and Canada has been the way in which our own population has been transformed. A decreasing percentage of our people trace their roots back to Europe. An increasing percentage trace their origins to Asia, Africa and Latin America. This has been a revolution in our country and an enormously positive one, but its net effect is to weaken the European-Canadian tie … [and] … On the European side, when the Europeans, particularly in central and eastern Europe, look across to Canada, they see a model they increasingly reject. Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal have embraced the multicultural future. We’re one of the great success stories in that way … [but] … if you look at Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Belgrade, they’ve turned their backs on such a future.“
I think his last comment is both insightful and frightening. I do not, even for a µsecond, doubt the truth of his observation that, especially, Eastern European cities, from Belgrade to Warsaw, are turning their backs on the sort of liberal, multicultural vibrancy that characterizes Vancouver and Toronto and are seeking to preserve their own, unique, socio-cultural heritages. The fear of “the other,” the stranger, which, in some part, drove so many Americans to vote for Donald Trump, exists in Europe, too, and I fear, is spreading to Canada. In some cases, it is not too hard to understand why. The liberal democratic values which arose, mainly, in Europe and spread around the world seem to be under direct attack by some and the response seems to be a retreat into illiberalism of the most severe sorts.
Michael Ignatieff also said that “At the same time … [as Europe is growing more illiberal] … in the biggest sense, the axis of the world is shifting inexorably from the North Atlantic linkage that was the centre of our foreign policy for the whole of the 20th century. The axis of the world is shifting from the North Atlantic to Asia-Pacific, and I think that means that Canada is going through the most substantial transformation of its foreign policy in my lifetime that I can remember. Canada is struggling to maintain its relationship with the United States. It is in deep difficulty in its relationship with China, and it’s necessarily having to rethink its relationship with Europe … [over three years ago I suggested that we needed to consider a Pacific Strategy]. Canada, Dr Ignarieff says, very correctly, calling Louis St Laurent and Lester Pearson to mind, is “one of the architects of the post-1945 world order. Canada was a founding partner of the UN, a founding partner of NATO, and a founding partner of the Bretton Woods achievement, and we were so because we thought multilateralism was a vital lever of influence for a middle power. But these institutions, all of these international multilateral institutions, are in some difficulty, particularly because the increasing standoff between the U.S. hegemon and rising powers is preventing these multilateral institutions from being effective … [he summed up by saying, accurately, that] … This is a slightly gloomy tour d’horizon, but it’s designed to make us think about the European-Canadian relationship in a new way. What do we do now as a country if we can’t depend on others for traditional alliance structures?“
Good question: “What do we do now … if we can’t depend on others?”
He has some good answers, too: “A couple of things seem pretty evident to me,” he says:
- “We’re going to have to spend more on our defence … [this is a recurring theme of mine];
- We’re going to have to commit to defending the peace of others through our skills in peacekeeping … [this is Liberal orthodoxy, but, if we do it right, if we leverage our military skill and technology correctly, then we can make bigger, better contributions to UN peacekeeping];
- We need to remain a beacon of hope for people seeking to emigrate and become Canadian … [another of my pet causes]; and
- We need to figure out how, as a major oil producer, we can meet our climate change commitments without blowing our federation apart.“
Michael Ignatieff then makes a wonderful point which I wish every Canadian, especially every parliamentarian would understand: “We need to teach our own people that liberal democracy is a balancing act between majority rule and minority rights, between parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law, and between cabinet government and parliamentary oversight. Liberal democracy is constantly having to be reinvented and retaught to the next generation, and,” he says, but I rather doubt, that “I know that’s something that parliamentarians take immensely seriously in their lives as members of Parliament.” I know that’s true for some, I wish it was true for all of them.
Dr Ignatieff is cautious about what Canada can do in, for, to and about Eastern Europe, especially, as he implies, when we have a government that cares more for photo-ops than actual results.
In conclusion, Michael Ignatieff said, we, Canadians “need to figure out what team we can play with. The Americans, to an astounding degree, have withdrawn from the security and stabilization of Europe. They regard Europe increasingly as a geostrategic and economic competitor. We are the North Atlantic society that still retains a commitment to liberal democracy in Europe, and we need to find the team we can play with. It looks like the Nordics, the Dutch, the French, the Germans and the Spanish … [but I, personally, doubt the commitment of the French and Spanish to liberal democracy, both are, in my view, highly illiberal societies] … are the pickup hockey team we want to be part of and working constantly with to sustain the democratic experiment in Europe. These are the democracies that give us some leverage. They’re the team we want to be on, and I don’t think there’s another one. I don’t think the Americans are coming back to this part of the world … [that’s a sad commentary on Trumpism, but it’s one with which I agree, and I
suspect fear that America may never “come back”] … Finally” he says, “the message of our country is incredibly optimistic in a troubled world. We are a very pragmatic, practical people who get up every morning and make this enormous country work. People admire the fact that we do it so well. This is a message of hope and optimism that the whole world needs, and I hope we have the investment in our diplomatic resources and the shrewdness of focus that allow us to spread that message of hope and optimism to this part of the world.” I hope so, too, but I am absolutely certain that in order to achieve that for which Michael Ignatieff and I and millions of Canadians hope, we need a change in government: Justin Trudeau must go, soon, he must be replaced with an adult leader.