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  • Empire, Tragedy, and the Liberal State in the Writings of Niall Ferguson and Michael Ignatieff

In March of 2006 the Bush Administration released is updated version of the “National Security Strategy for the United States”. Perhaps even more notable than the Administration’s continued defense of “preemptive” military action was the markedly imperialist implications of the moral, global vision articulated in the report. “In the world today,” argued the drafters in terms that would cause Realists to shudder, “the fundamental character of regimes matters as much as the distribution of power among them.”1 Such thinking was, and remains, central to the logic of “regime change” and the continued occupation of Iraq.

This article looks at the writings of two public intellectuals whose work contributed significantly a policy climate centered toward the importance of the “fundamental character of regimes”; Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard, Niall Ferguson, and former Carr Professor of Human Rights Policy at Harvard and current Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, Michael Ignatieff. The article focuses on the story each man tells of the relationship between liberalism and empire both historically and in the wake of September 11th. In particular, it examines how each constructs his narrative so that this relationship can only be understood in terms of a tragic choice between acting illiberally or allowing the world to slip into execrable chaos. At the heart of this construction lies a naturalized image of the liberal imperial state forging bravely through time, whose “fundamental character” both justifies its actions and whose actions reinforce its “fundamental character.”

The political project both Ferguson and Ignatieff confront in their pro-imperial writings is not uncommon in the history of liberal imperialism. Both must make sense out of the niggling disconnect between liberals’ historically expressed commitment to human equality, the self determination of states, and the rule of law and actual practices of imperialism which suspend these assumed natural rights for large segments of the world’s populations for unspecified amounts of time.2 The internal contours of each man’s argument, however, while similar in slope, also express the differences inherent in the particular kinds of liberalism to which they adhere. Because Ferguson is an iconoclastic neo-Thatcherite for whom liberalism “stands for creating the institutions of political, economic, and social freedom,” his arguments tend to be more triumphalist in tone, particularly with regard to the benefits of what he refers to as “Anglobalization,” past and present.3 For Ignatieff, by contrast, liberalism (as a political theory and set of institutional practices) is saturated with a much heavier ethical commitment to the “self justifying” and participatory processes of democratic debate.4 His pro-imperial work thus contains a good deal more of what looks like self-examination and moral critique. Regardless of style, however, both men come to the same ideological and policy conclusion; that the only way to guarantee the safety of liberal democracies and the continued thriving of the global free market is to accept that U.S. political and military hegemony is no longer enough. What the world requires, rather, is an explicit return to the vocabulary and political practices of empire, a full-fledged resurrection of imperial order headed by a self confessedly imperial American state. Both make this point through rhetorical processes that essentialize liberal democracies, past and present, and pose empire as the tragic but inevitable result of circumstances beyond our control.

The word “tragic” in this argument works on three different levels of analysis. First, it refers to the way Ferguson and Ignatieff set up their arguments so that empire seems a kind of “lesser evil” which, although inevitable, implies deep ethical and political losses. Second, Ferguson and Ignatieff both acknowledge that their political auguries fall within a narrative tradition of imperial rise and decline where the well meaning but flawed imperial heroes of Britain and Rome inevitably fell prey to the delusions of absolute power. Finally, I argue that Ignatieff and Ferguson’s works are tragic insofar as, in their desire to create a new kind of liberal imperial vision free from the Polybian shackles of empires past, they unwittingly echo the stylistic narratives of liberal imperialists writing during the twilight of the British Empire. They are then, blindly committed to an endeavor which failed before and, from all indications, will fail again.

In this paper I first examine Ferguson’s analysis of Britain’s imperial heritage as both a model for, and warning to, the American state. I then critique how Ignatieff’s imperial writings weave together storytelling and moral angst in a way that ultimately necessitates the creation of an “empire lite.” Finally, I compare the tragic elements of both approaches to each other and briefly to the imperial vision of those early twentieth century, British liberal historians associated with the powerful pro-imperial lobby, the Round Table Society. The point of such an analysis is to open up a space for historical rumination on the way liberals in the past and present have addressed uncomfortable tensions between liberalism and empire by siphoning these tensions through the liberal state’s “fundamental character,” thus transforming the decision to imperialize into a tragic fait accompli.

Ferguson and the “self-liquidating” character of liberal imperialism

In his Introduction to 1997’s Virtual History, Ferguson described his counterfactual approach to historical inquiry as a counterweight to the desire among some historians “to impose a new kind of determinism on the past.”5 And yet, imposing “a new kind of determinism on the past” is as accurate a description as any of Ferguson’s own methodology in Empire (2002) and Colossus (2004). In these works, Ferguson braids conflicting trends in the history of the Empire into one coherent story, a tale of pure but imperiled liberal identity where the imperial state’s necessary forays into despotism are experienced as painful reminders of that identity itself. Ferguson thus constructs the “lessons” we are to learn from the “rise and demise of the British world order” out of an historical narrative that describes the Empire’s confrontation with its own illiberality as a tragic but unavoidable paradox that permanently normalizes a state of exception for the colonized as the only alternative to global economic and political instability. While critics such as Priyamvada Gopal have already analyzed Ferguson’s spinning of the violence implicit in British imperial history into a “poisonous fairytale” of “a benign developmental mission,” this analysis focuses on how Ferguson constructs this fairytale around a particularly potent reading of the “liberal empire” in history.6

In the “Introduction” to Empire, Ferguson explains his purpose in writing a history of the British Empire. “There are already several good general histories of the British Empire in print,” he notes. “My aim has been not to replicate these but to write the history of globalization as it was promoted by Great Britain and her colonies – ‘Anglobalization’, if you like.”7 By using the word “globalization” (which first emerged in the pages of economic journals in the 1960’s but didn’t gain broad currency within international relations and finance discourse until the late 1980’s) Ferguson signals that his interest in writing a history of the empire stems from a desire to explain and reorient our contemporary attitudes toward the global economy.8 In other words, Ferguson’s aim is to explore the historical relationship between the British Empire and the development of a theory and practice of international economic organization – characterized by a commitment to free trade, de-regulation, economic integration, and the growth of new technologies – that we implicitly recognize as our own. We are also to understand from the very title of the book that this weltanschaung is imperiled, that the “demise of the British world order” has many “lessons” for contemporary economic and political practices and, indeed, that particular moments in the Empire’s history ought to serve as a model for these practices.

Right away then, Ferguson makes explicit his support not only for the British Empire’s past project of “Anglobalization” but also for contemporary policies of free trade and economic integration as promoted by a newly self conscious American Empire. This theme, while somewhat muted in Empire, becomes unequivocal two years later in Colossus where Ferguson (who likes to position himself as a renegade bucking against the tyranny of postcolonial scholarship) argues that he has no objection to an American Empire in principle.9 Ferguson goes on to insist, however, that what is required;

“is a liberal empire.... one that not only underwrites the free international exchange of commodities, labor and capital but also creates and upholds the conditions without which markets cannot function – peace and order, the rule of law, non-corrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies – as well as provides public goods...”10

Ferguson’s histories of the British Empire are thus written with a specific political project in mind and the slippages and internal tensions that characterize this liberal project profoundly effect his presentation of the past and of the lessons it can teach us.

Ferguson’s imperial narrative is thus rife with contemporary iterations of the kinds of contradictions that have so often haunted the liberal imagination. On the one hand, he proclaims his commitment to freedom, that is, freedom of movement, freedom of trade, freedom of speech, and free political practices embodied in parliamentary institutions.11 On the other hand, as the above quotation suggests, the free movement of capital also requires the imposition of order on an otherwise chaotic world so as to uphold “the conditions without which markets cannot function.” This in turn necessitates the coercive power of a political entity like the state (or trans-state association like empire) capable of enforcing this “peace and order” and “the rule of law.” Without such an entity, all hard working individuals would be subject to the perennial harassment of what Locke described as the “quarrelsome and contentious,” those who have, with their actions, put themselves outside of the liberal order. For Ferguson, the modern group equivalents of these un-reformable renegades are “stateless” societies, terrorist movements, and third world governments who “no matter how persuasive the arguments for economic openness” continue to “cling to their tariffs.”12

Early proponents of economic liberalism like Smith were perfectly willing to admit that governments were instituted for the express purpose of containing the “quarrelsome and contentious,” the un-propertied rabble.13 Governments could do good, according to Smith, they could promote the public welfare and make the commonwealth safe for commerce, but he was always clear eyed about the original purpose of government; to make the commonwealth safe for those with capital stock from those who had none. Ferguson, however, for all he positions himself as a cleareyed, economic realist, is never willing to make this admission. The purpose of Empire (and by this he means “Anglo” Empire, first British, then American) is always to spread fair and secure forms of governance and economic organization based on universal principles of liberty. The Anglophone imperial state is always, in its essence according to Ferguson, grounded on liberal values even when it appeared to be violating these values. This of course poses a problem for Ferguson’s reading of imperial history. The history of the British Empire is as rife with abuses of state power, with support for slavery and policies of racial discrimination, as it was with the spread of “western norms of law, order, and governance around the world.”14 Thus, Ferguson’s narration of imperial history must consistently confront the obdurate presence of the un-liberal in a way that simultaneously acknowledges these moments and smoothes them back into the unruffled sheen of the liberal endeavor.

From very early on in Empire, Ferguson does this by establishing for his readers what it was that made the British Empire so different from the French, Dutch, Belgium and later, German and Japanese Empires; its constant, nagging, sometimes barely audible but always present, liberal conscience. Thus, he maintains that;

“Whenever the British were behaving despotically, there was almost always a liberal critique of that behaviour from within British society. Indeed, so powerful and consistent was this tendency to judge Britain’s imperial conduct by the yardstick of liberty that it gave the British Empire something of a self-liquidating character. Once a colonized society had sufficiently adopted the other institutions the British brought with them, it became very hard for the British to prohibit that political liberty to which they so attached much significance for themselves.”15

And yet, while it may have been “very hard” to prohibit political liberty in the colonies this is precisely what the British state did in its everyday practices of colonial governance and its more flamboyant forays into repression in Amritsar, Omdurman, and Iraq. Ferguson responds to these repressive practices by insistently gesturing toward the psychological pain that they caused British policy makers and colonial administrators. In so doing, he establishes the Empire’s liberal sensibilities as constant over time. In other words, the very fact that the British state’s response to its own illiberal behavior is one of anguish proves its qualitatively liberal nature in spite of – or indeed because of – its actions. Ferguson’s suggestion then that the “self liquidating” nature of the Empire made it “hard” to act imperially is not meant to explain imperial decline but, rather, to reinforce its liberal character.

This theme of liberal anxiety played out across numerous stages spread throughout the Empire is a recurring motif in Ferguson’s work. The early white settlers of Australia, he claims, were “liberated” through the act of immigrating. But when these settlers began to behave toward Aboriginal people in ways that would now be considered genocidal, they were restrained by the more liberal minded impulses of colonial administrators in London, raising the uncomfortable question; “How could an empire that claimed to be founded on liberty justify overruling the wishes of colonists when they clashed with those of a very distant legislature?”16 Similarly, when white planters brutally suppressed black Jamaicans in 1865 the result was a face on off between the “liberalism of the center” and the “racism of the periphery,” a confrontation that ultimately led to direct rule of the island designed to “protect the rights of black Jamaicans.”17 In these instances the tensions between the liberal center and a racist periphery resulted in policies that depleted the political power of white settlers and increased the power of the central government in London. In other cases (such as the Boer War and the imperial state’s explicit support for the slaughter of the Mahdi Army) the central government might have been plagued by liberal guilt but, in the end, sacrificed its liberal political principles in order to maintain the kind of order that economic liberalism demanded.

We can see, according to Fergusson, the British Empire’s essentially liberal nature in the spread of its democratic institutions and notions “of property, law, and governance” throughout the imperial world since the 1770’s.18 But while Ferguson spends a good deal of time examining the efflorescence of these values, it is the perennial conflict between the Empire’s essentially liberal nature and the imperial state’s coercive but necessary denial of liberal principles in the colonies that inflect the whole book with a tragic, almost masochistic, quality. In this sense, Ferguson’s insistent reiteration of the anxiety produced by the clash between liberal values and coercive action in the history of the Empire reinforces the perception that the Empire was ultimately about liberty. The tragic element of this narrative lies in the fact that the Empire is always forced to make decisions which, because of what it is, are inevitably going to cause it pain. Imperial governance then becomes all about accepting the pain as a necessary part of the endeavor while being aware that the pain itself is there to remind the Empire of its true identity. In other words, “I know who I am because when I put my foot in the fire to stamp out the blaze it hurts me,” or, “I know that I am liberal because when I am forced to act illiberally I suffer.”

For Ferguson, the Empire spent much of its time, particularly during the late nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies, painfully stamping out fires in India, in Egypt, in Ireland, in the Sudan, and wherever nationalist uprisings threatened to disrupt the “free” movement of trade, or what Ferguson refers to as “Anglophone economic and political liberalism.”19 In his equation of political and economic freedom here, Ferguson echoes one of liberalism’s most elisional qualities, what G.A. Cohen has termed the “unreflective association of ideas” where the “market economy is ipso facto a free society.” 20 But this act of elision is more difficult for Ferguson than for the liberal and libertarian thinkers that Cohen analyzes precisely because his association of these ideas requires that he ignore not just the fact that political freedom can mask the un-freedom of capitalism (as Cohen argues) but that, in the context of Empire, political freedom itself must be denied to some for the express purpose of maintaining the “free” economic order. This is further complicated for Ferguson because the question he poses for himself in Colossus; “Might it not be that for some countries some form of imperial governance, meaning a partial or complete suspension of their national sovereignty, might be better than full independence, not just for a few months or years but for decades?”21 Ferguson responds to his own question in the affirmative and, in both Empire and Colossus, turns to the historical example of the British Empire to do this. Thus, he argues, “the British Empire proved that empire is a form of international government that can work – and not just for the benefit of the ruling power.”22

This particular claim requires that Ferguson reconcile the denial of political freedom for some with an expressed commitment to liberal freedom more generally not just in the present but also in the British Empire’s checkered past. Ferguson does this in part by wrapping the Empire in a mantle of liberal guilt such that all of its actions are transformed into pained expressions of universal freedom. However this still doesn’t solve the other very liberal problem inherent to the liberal imperial endeavor: how does one identify which peoples are to be excluded from the practices of liberal democracy that putatively give shape to the Empire in the first place? And because Ferguson uses the British Empire to “prove” that empire can work as a liberal form of international polity, this justification has to work retroactively. Imperial historians have traditionally made this point through explicitly racial and Orientalist arguments about political “tutelage” and totalitarian qualities of the East. As a twenty-first century historian working at Oxford and Harvard, Ferguson seems to believe he doesn’t have that luxury. Instead, he employs a kind of Orientalism by omission that still reiterates what Said has called an “imaginative geography” between East and West while making no explicitly racist or Orientalist claims.23

Ferguson wrote Empire as a popular book and one of the key ways he broadens its appeal is by offering the reader short, biographic vignettes of individual colonists, economic entrepreneurs in Africa, and low level functionaries in India, all complete with names. These are the people (including several close Ferguson relatives) who contributed to the Empire’s expansion on an every day level. We learn about the travails of Ferguson’s great aunt Agnes in rural Canada, the cultural adjustments of Third-class Magistrate Evan Machonochie in India, the indignity suffered by indentured servant John Harrower in Virginia, all of which serve to personalize what otherwise might remain an abstract account of the British imperial state, its navy, and its great men.24 However, we are never privy to a single account of an ordinary non-white imperial subject except for the occasional brief discussion of an indigenous elite or future nationalist leader, all of whom are British educated in India or England. The net result of this persistent occlusion is that by the end of the book the reader has come to clearly associate the Empire with the actions of individuals capable of self mastery and of forging a life for themselves in the wilderness, in essence, as both the creators, and deserving recipients of, liberal institutions. The imperialized remain undifferentiated masses, acted upon rather than actors, the necessary subjects rather than citizens of liberal order.

At the same time, Ferguson does occasionally seem to recognize that he cannot entirely escape from acknowledging both the traditional biases of his field and the complexity of imperial history itself. Thus, in Empire, Ferguson concedes that what British historians once dismissively referred to as “anarchy” in India during the 1740’s could more accurately be described as “internecine warfare,” a “struggle for mastery in India no different from the struggle for mastery in Hapsburg-dominated Europe that had been raging since the seventeenth-century.” Ferguson’s gesture here appears to arise from a desire to correct the longstanding tendency of imperial historians to portray the colonized world as primordial soup. Note, however, that the comparison is with Hapsburg Europe, not Britain, suggesting an affiliation for the pre-liberal, for the authoritarian tendencies of squabbling nationalities rather than self-motivated individuals, even, perhaps, for empire. For Ferguson, what existed in India before British occupation was not anarchy but an ailing imperium lorded over by Oriental despots.

Ferguson also consistently strives to inoculate himself against the charge that he is presenting a whitewashed version of an Empire without blemish. “I have endeavored,” he argues in the introduction to Empire, “....not to select so as to flatter. Slavery and the slave trade cannot and are not to be disclaimed, any more than is the Irish potato famine, the expropriation of the Matabele or the Amritsar massacre.”25 So we understand that Ferguson is not going to spare us any of the gory details of imperial history. But the net effect his narrative strategy – a strategy that acknowledges imperial racism while depersonalizing its subjects and reading their history as a pre-liberal form of imperial squabbling – is to transform the Empire into a fixed version of itself, a smooth egg, bobbing through history on a wave of activity produced by countless white, British citizens whose life stories and personal ambitions stand in stark contrast to the timeless, despotic desires of non-white masses.

Once Ferguson has dismissed the charge that he is presenting a biased version of imperial history he can proceed to address his real purpose of the book; to extract “lessons for global power” from the British Empire for the contemporary American state. But the word “lessons” here actually underplays Ferguson’s mission. The clear message of Empire and Colossus is that the world needs a full fledged resurrection of the British imperial spirit now transferred to the Americans but still based on the underlying liberal principles of “Anglobalization.” “Like the United States today,” he argues;

“Great Britain was very ready to use its naval and military superiority to fight numerous small wars against what we might now call failed states and rogue regimes..... Yet like the United States today the Victorian imperialists did not act purely in the name of national or imperial security. Just like the American presidents of recent decades have consistently propounded the benefit of economic globalization .... British statesmen a century ago regarded the spread of freed trade and the liberalization of commodity labor and capital markets as desirable for the general good. And just as most Americans today regard global democratization on the American model as self evidently good, so the British in those days aspired to export their own institutions – not just common law but ultimately also parliamentary monarchy-to the rest of the world.”26

I quote at length above not merely to demonstrate the astounding similarity across time that Ferguson establishes between the British and American imperial missions but also to emphasize the particular temporal flashpoint of this comparison. The imperial moment Ferguson emphasizes here is the “Victorian” Empire, the mid to late nineteenth century period of world straddling brashness whose most stunning visual image is the 1892 Punch cartoon of Rhodes the Colossus “bestriding’ Africa.27 Americans have much to learn from this period, argues Ferguson, and from their “more self-confident British predecessors.”28

Ferguson’s mission in Empire, however, is not merely to outline the shape of this imperial self-confidence in order to establish it as a model for imitation in Colossus, but also to explore precisely what happens when self-confidence is transformed into doubt, when liberal imperialists lose their bold willingness to violate the liberal identity of the Empire in the name of “Anglophone economic and political liberalism.” For Ferguson, such willingness, and acceptance of the anguish that accompanied it, literally was the “white man’s burden” and the decline of the Empire can be traced, he argues, to the moment when the manly embracement of what must be done (embodied in Rhodes campaign in Sudan) faltered as a cultural norm. From the turn of the nineteenth century onwards, but especially after World War One, he argues, “British attitudes flipped over from arrogance to anxiety.”29 He goes on to make it clear that arrogance – with its brash desire for improvement and infinite will to succeed – was eminently preferable to the whining of toadying liberals who cringed at the slightest massacre, liberals no longer ready to accept the pain that comes with stamping out fires. And, he adds, after Asquith’s election in 1906, the increasing presence of these people in both government and popular and intellectual culture resulted in the emergence of two fatal characteristics that would ultimately shatter the imperial armor; doubt and squeamishness.

On the one hand, Ferguson’s last chapters of Empire are devoted almost entirely to the enervating stench of doubt during this period. Indeed, he repeatedly describes British attitudes toward their empire in the post war period as mired in “doubt,” a “crisis of confidence” equal to a “loss of faith that ultimately went hand in hand with loss of faith in God.”30 Smarmy intellectuals of the time such as E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh severely “damaged” the Empire through their mocking portrayals of priggish colonials thus adding to this overall culture of anxiety.31 On the other hand, the “collapse of British self confidence” during this time also led to “hand wringing” and “second thoughts” about the use of force to put down rebellion which ultimately made the Empire appear weak.32 Ferguson argues throughout these chapters that the British now “lacked the stomach” for repression, that they had “lost their ruthless determination,” that the mood had changed “from self-righteousness to remorse.”33

It was this lack of determination, the rise in self doubt, plus a new unwillingness to buckle down and do the right thing regardless of the blood involved that ultimately killed the Empire, not nationalist rebellion and not some sudden realization that liberal principles of democracy should be extended to the colonized. Self doubt weakened the Empire to such a degree, Ferguson contends, that by the time World War Two came around it was all the British could do to fight off the world dominating ambitions of other Empires, those not based on liberty but on total domination. Wasting away from self-doubt, the Empire rallied just enough strength to engage in this “collision” between their Empire, grounded as it was in “some conception of human rights,” and the Japanese and German Empires who “regarded alien races as no better than swine.”34 In fighting the war, the British Empire “did the right thing” but was unable to recover from the blow. Even in defeat, however, Ferguson cannot help portraying the Empire in terms utterly over-determined by a masochistic desire to take on the pain of the world for its own good, indeed, for its very redemption. “This was the Empire’s Passion,” he thus argues, “it’s time on the cross. After this, could it ever be resurrected?”35 The answer, of course, is that it can and that the redeemer can be found in the creation of an explicitly self-conscious and self-confident (rather than merely hegemonic) American Empire. But just as Christ suffered for our sins so must this new Empire also be willing to suffer.

In sum, Ferguson takes the history of the British Empire and squeezes it through a particular narrative vision of the liberal imperial state such that two, and only two, options for the contemporary world emerge as possibilities; the American Empire can either embrace the pain of violating its own liberal identity in the name of “Anglobalization” or watch global politics descend into the “internecine warfare” of an empireless world or a world dominated by nonliberal Empires where a pan-global, imperializing “Islamic jihad” takes refuge in the “failed states” of post-colonial era.36 And Ferguson cautions that this must be done boldly, without squeamishness, in the name of liberal order. It is no surprise then that he ends Empire with an excerpt from “The White Man’s Burden.” The United States, he concludes has already “taken up some kind of global burden just as Kipling urged.”37 The key to its success now lies in its willingness to shake off denial, squeamishness, and guilt, and embrace the violence that that comes with such tragic responsibility.

Ignatieff and the anguish of “self-justification”

As his immensely influential, 2003 New York Times article “The Burden” suggests, since September 11th 2001, Michael Ignatieff has been similarly drawn to late nineteenth century, British notions of imperial duty and righteous action as a model for contemporary American foreign policy. His refusal, however, to explicitly reference Kipling in this article while still offering readers in the know a winking allusion to perhaps the most famous of imperial slogans speaks volumes about Ignatieff’s more historically (and rhetorically) circuitous path to empire. Unlike Ferguson’s linear narrative of “Anglobalization” past and present, the picture Ignatieff paints of America’s imperial role in the contemporary world order is a pastiche of historical vignettes, personal stories, professional policy speak, liberal human rights theory, and ethical torment. When we look at the narrative structure of The Burden, Empire Lite (2003), and The Lesser Evil (2005) as the sum of their parts, history adds up to the moral necessity of an “empire lite” in which the American state, American citizens, and their allies, transcend their liberal guilt and well known reluctance to claim the imperial moniker and “provide the force and will necessary to bring order out of chaos,” which, like Ferguson, he associates with “failed states “ and liminal zones where the rule of law has no reach.38 At the same time, when looked at in isolation, each story that Ignatieff tells in the course of his argument seems to express a profound ethical ambivalence about the imperial choices faced by liberal democratic states in a disordered world. In the end, Ignatieff’s message is nearly identical to Ferguson’s but the imperial story he tells appears more thoughtful, cocooned in the anguished glow of what looks like historical self-reflection and profound moral critique that mask the foregone character of his conclusions.

As his earlier works on ethnic nationalism demonstrate, Ignatieff is hardly a stranger to the essay oriented, historically roaming, narrative style that characterizes his writings on empire. 1992’s Blood and Belonging, for instance, revolves around Ignatieff’s travels throughout Eastern Europe, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland and he begins the book by immediately placing himself within the discursive structure of the stories he tells. “The Itinerary I chose was personal, but, I hoped, not arbitrary,” Ignatieff maintains. “I chose places I had lived in, cared about, and knew enough about to believe that they could illustrate certain central themes.”39 These central themes include Ignatieff’s main premise and several less emphatic but still crucial sub-themes, most importantly, that ethnic nationalism is not something westernized cosmopolitans can dismiss as mere madness. Thus, while the ultimate conclusion of both Blood and Belonging and The Warrior’s Honor is that ethnic nationalism poses the greatest humanitarian threat of the post-cold war age, the narrative depictions in both books – particularly when read in the context of Ignatieff’s own, expressed personal connections to these conflicts – invite the reader to sympathize with the emotional and political lure of nationalism.

While Ignatieff has been rightly criticized for both constructing his narratives to illustrate certain foregone conclusions and adopting a voice of authorial innocence to mask his ideological position, the overall picture he paints of ethnic nationalism in these earlier works is both complicated and hopeful.40 The reader comes away from both Blood and Belonging and The Warrior’s Honor with the sense that not only is nationalism a historical phenomenon with varied, emotionally meaningful, and sometimes dangerous, manifestations, but that the world can handle it. The existence of humanitarian intervention, the presence of aid organizations, and the uprisings of everyday people against violence all suggest, argues Ignatieff, that nationalism in its most militarized form cannot ultimately dampen the human spirit or (more practically) irrevocably damage fledgling democracies in a manner that threatens to destabilize the global order. “The world is not becoming more chaotic or violent, although our failure to understand and act make it seem so,” Ignatieff argues in The Warrior’s Honor. 41 In other words, for Ignatieff, the rise of ethnically, historically, and politically complicated nationalisms in the wake of the Cold War’s well understood patterns of international engagement may seem to imperil the world in heretofore unheard of ways, but that this doesn’t need to be the case. As the above quote suggests, Ignatieff puts an immense (some might call naïve) amount of faith in human understanding. International actors can, Ignatieff maintains, help states torn apart by ethnic nationalism by first understanding nationalism as a complicated historical and emotional phenomenon. “Reconciliation has not a chance against vengeance,” he argues, “unless it respects the emotions that sustain vengeance.” 42 Again, Ignatieff’s decision to structure some of his narratives around his personal family history serves to model for his readers what such an engaged, empathetic respect can look like.

On a structural level, Ignatieff’s post-September 11th writings on empire and terrorism resemble these earlier books. Thus, Empire Lite and The Lesser Evil are also written as collections of essays weaving together several different historical and geographically located narratives that ultimately serve to make Ignatieff’s final point while simultaneously gesturing toward the ethical complexities and contradictions of that point. Substantively, however, Ignatieff’s recent writings have shifted away from the promise of reconciliation so apparent in his earlier works. He now starts from the premise that the international sphere is becoming more “chaotic” and “violent,” that what he had once characterized as a difficult but manageable post-cold war world peppered by resurgent nationalism is now a “vacuum of chaos and massacre.”43 For the new, pro-imperial Ignatieff, the goals of liberal democracy are at permanent odds with those of international actors situated outside the order of liberal states: terrorists, intractable nationalists, warlords, and “stateless” societies themselves. The only way to deal with this vacuum, he maintains, is for the American people to buck up and proudly own that, since Teddy Roosevelt, their state has been attempting to “permanently order the world of states and markets according to its national interest.”44 Accepting that such a project is the only way to bring about world stability means also coming to terms with the fact that the American state must act in ways that violate the most precious liberal sensibilities of its founders. It means accepting that liberal states cannot afford to be orthodox with regard to civil rights and must accept limited, carefully circumscribed, forms of torture and military occupation as the painful byproducts of saving both liberal democracy and the world itself.

Over the last six years, Ignatieff has moved closer to Ferguson’s brand of liberalism in two ways. On the one hand, in his earlier works on nationalism, Ignatieff may have spoken in the affectedly naïve tone of a westernized “we,” but he was also willing to press this persona toward developing a real understanding of ethnic nationalists, the 1990’s equivalent of the “quarrelsome and the contentious.” But The Burden, Empire Lite, and The Lesser Evil are all characterized by a notable lack of concern for understanding the emotional or political motivations of those who, by virtue of their actions, place themselves outside of the liberal order. Indeed, the liberal “we” of these texts often sounds more outraged and morally dogmatic than Ferguson ever allows his measured, economists tone to approximate. This is a “we” that consistently posits not the liberal subject’s potential affinity with the other but its absolute difference from those who would seek to destroy its way of life. Thus, in a chapter in The Lesser Evil devoted specifically to the dangers posed by terrorism to democratic states, Ignatieff insists;

“Societies under the endless trial of self-justification are apt to feel guilty about their success. But our success is not a fact to feel guilty about, and the failure of other societies is not our fault. It is an illusion, dear to liberal democrats everywhere, especially to Americans, to believe that we are responsible for all the evils of the world and that we are in a position to cure them, if only we possessed the will to do so.” 45

For Ignatieff, the “we” under attack (citizens of liberal states engaged in the “endless trial” of democratic review) are explicitly exempt from any historical responsibility with regards to the “failed states” of the world. In this global vision, such failure occurred before, under, and around the liberal state in a netherworld of post-colonial chaos. For Ignatieff the “movements of national liberation that swept through the African and Asian worlds” have “now run their course and in many cases have failed to deliver on their promise to rule more fairly than the colonial oppressors of the past.”46 Ignatieff thus renders the “success” of liberal democracies completely dependent upon their internal qualities thus uncoupling that success from the “failure” of post-colonial states.

To be fair, in contrast to Ferguson’s dismissive perorations on the intransigence of the third world, Ignatieff’s often impassioned portrayals of struggling of Afghan bricklayers or Bosnian villagers suggests that he does feel genuine compassion for the suffering of the occupants of failed states, those past, current, and potential subjects of colonial rule. But like Ferguson, his overall argument (particularly in Empire Lite) is structured around a story telling strategy that obscures the humanity and agency of these very same people. Also like Ferguson, Ignatieff strives to put a human face on the contemporary military and humanitarian projects he considers imperial by situating his narratives in Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and other embattled locales and then drawing upon the personal stories and view points of actors involved in each “national building” endeavor. He argues that these examples are intended to “help both sides in the enterprise of nation building, to identify the illusions that make a genuine act of solidarity so difficult.”47 But the only “side” to emerge from the ether of these stories as legitimate, as fully formed persons, is that of western nation builders and diplomats. The primary subject of his discussion of Bosnia, for instance, is the French architect hired to reconstruct a bridge in Mostar while the story of violence and corruption in Kosovo is told in the context of U.N. special representative Bernard Kouchner’s struggle to fashion a peace between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs. In 2004’s “The Seduction of Moral Disgust” Ignatieff channels his discussion of the new imperial order of the post imperial age through an extended discussion of the Kurtz character in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. By contrast, imperialized peoples and the hapless subjects of failed states are often described sympathetically but with a wide brush; we see glimpses of “scrofulous” children at school in Afghanistan, villagers scuttling away from the scene of a bombing in Kosovo, but no one besides the occasional wily war lord appears as a fully formed individual. The overall effect is much like Ferguson’s portrait of imperial history in that the world becomes the legitimate purview only of those able to exercise full humanity; the well meaning, liberal minded, western individuals exerting, in this case, humanitarian order onto a chaotic wash of sympathetic but unfocused masses.

On the other hand, Ignatieff’s work also parallels Ferguson’s in its rhetorical emphasis on the liberal identity of the imperial state. Like Fergusson, Ignatieff often adopts the tone of a detached realist, a hard-nosed observer of imperial politics who recognizes that American and European engagement in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan involves “just as much callow self-interest as high humanitarian resolve.”48 But at the same time, with Ferguson, Ignatieff never thinks to challenge the intentions of the American state and its European allies (however self interested they may be) precisely because these states are essentially and quintessentially liberal and their commitment to internal forms of legitimate democratic review beyond question. One sees this uncritical acceptance of the imperial state’s moral legitimacy at work in the extent to which Ignatieff’s pro-imperial work dwells on “our” “constitutional identity,” as a “free people,” as a society “under the endless trial of self-justification.”49 Indeed, whereas Ferguson may impute a naturalized, almost organic, quality to the liberal state’s democratic sensibilities, Ignatieff is much more explicit in this regard. As far as anti-terrorist intelligence gathering is concerned, Ignatieff insists that “a liberal democratic society will, by its nature, impose some limitations on what intelligence and counter terror squads can do.”50 He goes on to argue that democracies “by their very nature, are less capable of vigilance than authoritarian regimes.”51 It is “the very nature of democracy” to limit government Ignatieff concludes, and it is “also in the nature of democracy that it prevails against its enemies because it does so.”52 More than Ferguson, Ignatieff essentializes the liberal democratic state around a basic set of automatic responses, fixed characteristics, and unassailable good intentions.

Also like Ferguson, pain plays a central role in Ignatieff’s portrayal of liberal state identity. Despite his insistence that liberal states have nothing to feel guilty about when it comes to their success, Ignatieff simultaneously insists that the collective experience of guilt serves as proof positive of the liberal state’s democratic credentials. “Only liberal democracies,” he thus maintains, “have a guilty conscience about punishment.”53 Where Ignatieff differs from Ferguson is in emphasis. While Ferguson regarded the “liberal critique” of colonial behavior “from within British society” as the “yardstick of liberty” by which history can judge the Empire’s fundamental intentions, Ignatieff’s collective self flagellation goes much deeper. In part this is the result of his rhetorical style, a style that consistently blends story telling with urgent, almost self-undermining questions that casts the whole endeavor in the glow of ethical anguish. But whereas Ferguson demonstrates the Empire’s pain through a narrative of history that gestures toward that pain and then moves on, Ignatieff asks the reader to dwell on this pain by keeping these questions present in their minds as a pre-condition of “our” liberal democratic existence. In other words, Ignatieff insists that liberal democratic societies are characterized by a constant process of self examination and self justification, both in an institutional and ideological sense, a quality he literally re-enacts through his works. Thus, Empire Lite, The Burden, and The Lesser Evil are peppered with contemporary and historical examples of imperialism in action that elicits a stream of difficult questions. What happens, Ignatieff wonders, when the people “we” are occupying don’t want “us” there? How does “our” democratic state reconcile its commitment to “self determination” with empire? What kinds of civil rights can the state curtail in the name of freedom? What happens when the goals of nation building and democracy clash? The overall effect of this barrage of questions is to make it seem as though Ignatieff were, as he wrote the text, boldly seeking to trouble his own reluctant conclusions about imperial necessity.

There is, I argue, a deeply perfomative quality to the relentless reiteration of these questions in Ignatieff’s work. One is always aware as one reads that Ignatieff has already reached his reluctant conclusions, conclusions apparent from the very titles of the works themselves. A “burden” implies something that must be shouldered. A “lesser evil” suggests that the other option is unacceptable. Thus, the overall effect of this tortured line of questioning is cathartic rather than critical. The liberal subject of the western democratic state (Ignatieff’s intended audience) can feel both as though they have done hard thinking on empire and that, given this hard thinking, can support the imperial actions of their state. At the same time, we know the state is well meaning in its imperial actions because of the fact that its citizens pose difficult questions. These questions are all about “us” (how will imperialism hurt our democracy?), and “our” ethics (should we be involved in this endeavor?) but never about the relationship between “our” liberal state and the history of formal and informal imperialism more generally. Self-justification, for Ignatieff, thus never goes so far as to question the “self” that is justifying but only works to reinforce the liberal identity of the state.

But, as James Tully has recently argued, liberal political identity itself was forged in the shadow of empire. Thus, modern forms of liberal citizenship and understandings of democratic governance in Europe emerged, Tully maintains, within the context of eighteenth and nineteenth century states that were both liberal and imperializing. In this “co-creation” of the west and the non-west we see the discursive and practical fixing of global economic practices, governmentalities, and political assumptions about citizenship structured around the relationship between modern and pre-modern, developed and developing, first and third world, that continues well into the “postcolonial” era through the exercise of American and European economic and military “hegemony.”54 Likewise, Thomas Pogge’s work examines the implications of this bipolar hegemony for emerging democracies in the contemporary world, precisely those dangerous, “stateless” societies that Ignatieff places beyond the pale of liberal order. Pogge argues that the desire of western, liberal, democratic states for cheap natural resources, coupled with an international monetary system that rewards authoritarian and corrupt governments who can deliver these resources, contribute to state failure. Hence, there is a relationship, Pogge argues, between what he terms the “international resource privilege” and the “international borrowing privilege” that encourages the proliferation of undemocratic and corrupt regimes in resource rich but “undeveloped” states.55

It is precisely any notion of relationship, historical or contemporary, that Ignatieff’s portrait of the self-justifying liberal state obscures behind its smooth, self-critical exterior. The liberal state rolls through Ignatieff’s works on empire and terrorism like an airtight ball whose internal pain and debate insulates it from deeper arguments about structural power. And, unlike Ferguson who develops the story of the Anglophonic empire from Britain to America in a seamless linear swoop, Ignatieff lobs the liberal state into imperial history with a kind of elliptical abandon, moving back and forth between contemporary narratives, ethical musings on liberal theory, and historical examples. “The history of the British Empire,” Ignatieff argues, “is that self-determination and imperial rule are not incompatible.” Indeed, the British gave themselves “two generations” to make this work in Palestine and India before “throwing up their hands in despair.”56 We get no mention, from Ignatieff, of Britain’s role in establishing some of the most troubled, “stateless” regimes of the Middle East, only a sense of its ultimately frustrated commitment to self-government. Likewise, Ignatieff admits that the American state might have aligned itself with some unsavory characters in the Middle East, regimes that have “failed their people,” but he is silent with regard to the role of the U.S. in overthrowing democracies, arming friendly dictators, and in general, creating the very “disorder” that now keeps him up at night.57 In Ignatieff’s circular narrative, the American state’s obvious good intentions mean that, while in the past it might have been a bit naïve in its choices of friends, it intentions insulate it from any responsibility for creating these regimes in the first place.

The overall effect of this narrative style is that we understand the liberal character of the American state as beyond dispute, as evidenced by the pained, self-justifying practices of liberal democratic debate that its citizens partake in when confronted by the “evil” of terrorist violence. And, given these good intentions, this “evil” can’t help but seem incomprehensible, a modern day “nihilism” with no end. Ignatieff’s use of the word “terror” rather than “terrorism” throughout his works on empire reinforces this inscrutability. “Terror is terror,” in Ignatieff’s words, and its intent is to permanently damage the liberal order. 58 In the face of this kind of threat, the only choice liberal societies have left is to reluctantly set aside their principles so as to “create order in border zones essential to the security of the great powers.”59 This necessity will of course engender all of the uncomfortable questions that a “self-justifying” democracy must confront with regard to its “identity as a free people.” But Ignatieff has already made it clear that self-justifying pain is par for the course, implicit in the “nature” of who “we” are. Once Americans come to terms with this pain and accept their imperial duty the liberal state can face outward into the terror and confront it with a clear conscience, reluctantly resigned to the uncomfortable fact that the “contradictions” between democracy and imperialism “are not happy but they are unchangeable.”60

Ignatieff’s writings on empire thus perform precisely the kind of pained, reluctant, “self reflection” that he deems necessary for the liberal state to be liberal. However, empire is still a foregone conclusion. Given that the “success” of the liberal state has nothing to do with structural relations of power, given who “we” are as a democratic people, and given the “unchangeable” contradictions between democracy and imperialism, the potential imperializer has only two choices; accept the “lesser evil” of empire or watch the world spiral into violent chaos that threatens the future of liberal democracy itself. Once the decision has been made, citizens of the American state may have to tolerate the ethical torment of life in a liberal empire but they can rest assured that this torment exists as a reminder that the “fundamental character” of their regime remains in tact. Indeed, as the next section elaborates, both Ignatieff and Ferguson’s analyses suggest that the identity of the liberal state itself is forged precisely through the collective act of accepting the tragic implications of imperial choice.

Empire’s tragedy

The recurrent theme of tragic choice in Ferguson’s and Ignatieff’s writings on empire may be striking in the extent to which both men emphasize the pain experienced by the polity but, as Romand Coles would no doubt argue, hardly surprising given the Procrustean necessities of their liberalism. In Beyond Gated Politics, Coles examines the claim that “political liberalism... is oriented by a very deep sense of tragedy.”61 He interrogates this assertion through a close analysis of the work of John Rawls who, he argues, frames the dialogic space in which liberalism operates by constant reference to the tragic conflict of the European “wars of religion.” For Rawls, political liberalism “starts by taking to heart the absolute depth of that irreconcilable latent conflict.” This depth – that is, its violent and tragic conclusions – thus becomes the constantly reiterated basis of our “self understanding’ and, according to Coles, the primary logic by which liberals of Rawls’ persuasion exclude religion and other forms of “unreasonable” argument from legitimate public discourse. Excluding discussion of “comprehensive doctrines” from the public and political domain may be sad, may constrain the diversity of voices able to engage in democratic practices, but the alternative is a slippery slope into violence and repression. The choice appears tragic because not only must the liberal polity sacrifice engagement with “comprehensive doctrines” in the name of preventing violence but this very sacrifice itself requires that “we repeatedly remember” the “mortal and never too distant conflict” that such engagement can produce.

For Coles, tragedy in this context is circumscribed by finitude rather than possibility or critique and is thus a far cry from the “vision of tragedy” with which he is more sympathetic. In this vision (adapted from Peter Euben’s work on the political role of tragedy in Athenian democracy) the performance of tragedy both “constituted and challenged” the democratic tradition in Athens by deepening “a sense of the dangers of both piety and impiety.”62 Tragedy in this context thus called the polity forth to reconstitute its conception of justice through a kind of self-reflection that might elicit real change in its own configuration. Richard Ned Lebow echoes this notion of tragedy through an analysis of the “realist” tradition in international politics by arguing that tragedy can serve as an “appropriate foundation for an alternative ontology for social science,” one that calls on international relations scholars to ground their theories in an awareness of the tragic polarities generated by political life.63 Tragedy for Lebow, however, never entails silencing the political alternatives engendered by these polarities but, rather, asks us to build on a “recognition and struggle to represent, not to suppress, the diversity and inherent instability of human identities, interests and motives, and their complex interactions with the discourses, social practices and institutions they generate and sustain.”64 By contrast, Coles argues that Rawls’ understanding of “tragic choice” precludes precisely this move toward self-reflection and the recognition of diversity and instead works to ossify the bounded and exclusionary nature of the polity.

I argue that Coles’ reading of tragedy in Rawls’ liberalism also appropriately describes the kind of “tragic choice” that Ignatieff and Ferguson consistently posit as central to their visions of liberal empire. For both men, the necessary decision that the British state made and the American state must make with regard to empire is quintessentially tragic because it implies loss. Just as Coles characterizes Rawls’ re-evocation of the tragic “wars of religion” as a means to exclude particular modes of life from participation in political dialogue, so too does the constant and relentless specter of international chaos in Ignatieff and Ferguson’s analyses force the liberal state to sacrifice some of its basic generosity and foundational principles regarding civil liberties and self determination. In regard to a “war on terror,” Ignatieff puts it this way;

“Saying the choices are tragic is not meant to excuse indecision – decisions will have to be made – but decisions in favor of necessity should be constrained by awareness of the seriousness of the loss in terms of justice.”65

There is a deep, self reinforcing logic to this understanding of the “tragic.” Both Ignatieff and Ferguson frame the choice to behave imperially as deeply troubling to the identity of the liberal state, as a wrenching sort of amputation. And yet, at the same time, the very act of confronting the tragic choice in the name of what is right – of manfully facing up to the fact that “decisions will have to be made” and doing so in the forthright and honest manner of the Victorians – reconfirms the imperial state’s identity as liberal. In the end, it is the sureness of this liberal identity that reduces the liberal state’s options to empire or death. In Ignatieff’s words, “Nobody likes empires but there are some problems for which there are only imperial solutions.”66 Ferguson has his own historical version of the same conclusion. “The question is not whether British imperialism was without blemish,” he insists. “The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity.”67 The bulk of both Empire and Colossus suggests that there was not. Hence, in the end, by repeatedly gesturing toward the tragic choice of empire, Ignatieff and Ferguson transform the story of the relationship between political and economic liberalism and European and American imperialism into a timeless clash between these principles and the specter of international chaos that effectively erases the deeply complicated and mutually reinforcing history of these worldviews. The story of imperial violence perpetrated by liberals in the name of the liberal state is reduced to the same tragic scenario over and over again.

Ferguson’s and Ignatieff’s focus on the character of the liberal state or liberal society rather than on particular political leaders sharply differentiates their understanding of “tragic choices” from traditional readings of the “dirty hands” problem in politics. Thus, the tension between moral right and political necessity has long interested political thinkers as Machiavelli’s portrayal of the prince and Max Weber’s sympathetic description of the politician as tragic hero in “Politics as a Vocation” make evident. But both Machiavelli and Weber were concerned with the question of doing bad for political good from the perspective of the individual political actor who must, to a certain extent, live with the pain and moral responsibility of their actions. While Michael Walzer has rightly argued that we are never exactly sure how Machiavelli’s prince feels about this responsibility, we do know that for Weber it weighed heavily on the mind of the political leader.68 A true political hero, a “mature man,” argued Weber, must act with the “knowledge of tragedy,” a tragedy assured by the fact that he is “aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul.” 69 This depth of feeling is still not enough for Walzer, however, who argues in his influential 1973 article, “Political Action; the Problem of Dirty Hands,” that there must be some public accounting of the politician’s moral choice. In other words, Weber’s political agent is still accountable only to his own pained conscience whereas Walzer would like to see him punished for his ethical breach even though this breach might have been necessary for the good of the polity (e.g. the torture of a political prisoner in order to gain information about a ticking time bomb). Without such censure, Walzer argues, maintaining moral standards becomes impossible.

But even Walzer, while nominally concerned with the relationship between making the politicians “pay the price” and making sure that we “find some way of paying the price ourselves,” remains resolutely focused on the actions of powerful individuals in morally treacherous political situations.70 By evoking organic narratives of collective political identity organized around imperializing state actors – that is, “liberal democracies” or the British Empire – Ignatieff and Ferguson manage to both collectivize responsibility and diffuse it to the point of irrelevance. For all of the stories they tell of individuals grappling with morally ambiguous situations in the context of empire, both men understand “tragic choices” as collective acts sanctioned by a liberal state whose moral identity is not only beyond reproach but evident in the collective guilt felt by its citizens. Nowhere is this approach to the state clearer than in Ignatieff’s refusal to name the political agents facing “tragic choices.” “Decisions will have to be made,’ Ignatieff argues in the passive voice, and we must all be “aware” of the loss such decisions engender. But the actors making the decision to imperialize – huddled in the Oval Office, scattered throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, typing away in neo-conservative think tanks or Harvard’s own halls – are tightly obscured by the sheath of democratic accountability and good intentions that encase the liberal state. This constant evocation of our “fundamental character” resembles what Harold Laski once referred to as the “apotheosis of the state” and Ignatieff’s and Ferguson’s dependence upon it as a political trope exposes a deep flaw in Walzer’s argument.71 Walzer assumes that making the problem of “dirty hands” public and holding political actors to account will help press polities to reflect on their moral codes. By contrast, in Ignatieff’s and Ferguson’s visions, we all have “dirty hands” but the dirt merely serves to remind us of our liberal identity in the face of tragic inevitability.

Ironically, Ignatieff and Ferguson are also both aware that by arguing for empire they are placing themselves dangerously within the ambit of another tale of tragic proportions; the historical movement of imperial rise and fall. Both men acknowledge somewhat nervously that this story hinges on the imperial flaw of hubris, what Ignatieff refers to as the “characteristic delusion of imperial power,” common to the Romans and “repeated by the British imperialists in their turn,” a delusion that confuses “global power with global hegemony.”72 But both also argue that it is possible to stop the tragic repetition of history not by calling the imperial endeavor itself into question but by halting the cycle through new and improved imperial tactics and models. For Ferguson, the secret lies in creating an American empire based on the “Victorian model” of “Antiglobalization” rather than on the “Roman model” of overreach or for that matter, the inter-war example of self doubt.73 For Ignatieff, avoiding the fate of the Romans and the British necessitates a constant vigilance against confusing necessary with total power. In essence, both men want to have their cake and eat it too; both want to claim the insight and the sense of dire urgency that comes with being the subject of a tragic drama but neither wants to accept the possibility that this insight could come too late or be simply wrong.

And it is in this final sense that Ferguson and Ignatieff’s works on empire are truly tragic. By insistently reducing the imperializing liberal state to its most “fundamental character” both men not only obscure the dense and multilayered history of the relationship between liberalism and imperialism, they do so in a way that almost exactly mimics the scholarship of liberal imperialists writing during the decline of the British Empire. Thus, in the early decades of the twentieth-century, British liberal scholars associated with the immensely powerful policy group the Round Table similarly argued that it was possible to put a spoke in the cycle of imperial rise and decline by recasting the empire as a “commonwealth of Nations” that was, like Ferguson’s and Ignatieff’s understanding of the American state, liberal to its very core. “Freedom,” argued Lionel Curtis the key architect of the group’s imperial policy in 1915, “like the principle of life in the physical world, is inseparable from growth. Commonwealths are the corporeal frame in which it is incarnate.”74As the “corporeal frame” of freedom, the British Empire was, according to this view, absolved from the violence implicit in the imperial project, even when that violence violated its commitment to freedom. The legacy of the Round Table was its contribution to a political environment in inter-war Britain that rationalized the continuation of an overstretched and yet increasingly violent empire well into the 1960’s.75 This is precisely the doubtful period, the period of decline in the British Empire that both Ignatieff and Ferguson wish to avoid. And yet, like Oedipus lying in bed with Jocasta, neither seems able to perceive the tragic turn of history’s wheel.

Jeanne Morefield

Jeanne Morefield is an Associate Professor of Politics and Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She is the author of Covenants Without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (Princeton University Press, 2005). Her recent work includes “‘An Education Greece’: The Round Table, Imperial Theory, and the Uses of History,” History of Political Thought, 28 (Summer 2007), and “‘The Habits of Imperialism’: Harold Laski on Sovereignty and Empire” (forthcoming in British Academy, Lineages of Empire, 2009.) She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Politics in the Passive: Imperial Amnesia and Pluralist Responses in the Long Twentieth Century.


1. “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” March 2006, .

2. For more on the history of this relationship in the works of British political theorists see Uday Mehta, Liberalism and Empire (Chicago, 1999), Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire (Princeton, 2005), Jeanne Morefield, Covenants Without Swords (Princeton, 2005).

3. Ferguson describes his understanding of what liberalism “stands for” in an interview he gave for Frank Bures of the Atlantic Monthly, May 25, 2004. .

4. See Ignatieff’s The Rights Revolution (Anansi; Toronto, 2000) for a more extensive account of his vision for liberal democracy.

5. Niall Ferguson, ed., Introduction to Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactual (Basic Books; New York, 1997), 67.

6. Priyamvada Gopal, “The Story Peddled by Imperial Apologists is a Poisonous Fairytale,” The Guardian, Wednesday June 28, 2006,,,1807642,00.html .

7. Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (Basic Books; New York, 2002), xxiii.

8. For one of the first uses of the term by an international economist see Theodore Levitt, “The Globalization of Markets,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 1983.

9. For insight into Ferguson’s own positioning of his scholarship see his interview with Janet Tassel, The Global Empire of Niall Ferguson; Doing History on a Sweeping Scale,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 1983.

10. Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (Penguin; New York, 2004), 2.

11. For Ferguson, it is precisely when freedom (in this case, freedom of trade) is stymied and when we see a rise of “protectionism in less developed countries” that “global prosperity declines.” Ibid. 177.

12. Ibid.166.

13. “Civil government,” Smith thus observed, “so far as it is instituted for the security of property is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into The Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations; Selected Passages (Oxford, 1998), Book Five, Part 2.

14. Ferguson, Empire, xxi.

15. Ibid. xxii.

16. Ibid. 90.

17. Ibid. 163.

18. Ferguson, Colossus, 184.

19. Ferguson, Empire, 310.

20. G.A. Cohen, “Capitalism, Freedom, and the Proletariat,” The Idea of Freedom: Essays In Honour of Isaiah Berlin, ed. Alan Ryan (Oxford, 1979), 11.

21. Ferguson, Colossus, 170.

22. Ferguson, Empire, 308.

23. Edward Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” The Geopolitical Reader, ed. Gearóid Ó Tuathail (Routledge; London, 1998).

24. Ferguson, Empire, xv, 155, 59.

25. Ibid. xxv.

26. Ferguson, Colossus, 26.

27. In 1947 Harold Laski would use precisely this language to declare that now “America bestrides the world like a colossus; neither Rome at the height of its powers nor Great Britain in the period of its economic supremacy enjoyed an influence so direct, so profound, pervasive.” Harold Laski, America – 1947,” The Nation, 165 (December 13th, 1947), 641.

28. Ferguson, Colossus, 26.

29. Ferguson, Empire, 185.

30. Ibid. 268.

31. Ibid. 269.

32. Ibid. 275.

33. Ibid. 279–278.

34. Ibid. 284.

35. Ibid. 288

36. Ferguson’s use of the world “jihad” and “Islamicist” throughout both Empire and Colossus to describe the clash between the British and American Empires with eastern authoritarianism over time is extensive and deserves its own sustained inquiry.

37. Ferguson, Empire, 316.

38. Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite (Vintage, 2003), 125.

39. Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; New York, 1993), 14.

40. See, for instance, Smaro Kamboureli’s critique of Ignatieff in “Staging Cultural Criticism: Michael Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging and Myrna Kostash’s Bloodlines,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 31 (1996), pp.166–187.

41. Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honor (Henry Hold and Co.; New York, 1997), 8.

42. Ibid.190.

43. Michael Ignatieff, “The Burden,” The New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003, 50.

44. Ignatieff, Empire Lite, 2.

45. Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil (Princeton, 2004), 168.

46. Ignatieff, Empire Lite, 9.

47. Ibid. 25.

48. Ibid. 23.

49. Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil, 142, 168.

50. Ibid 135.

51. Ibid.153.

52. Ibid. 23.

53. Ibid. 17.

54. James Tully, “‘On Global and Local Citizenship’, Imperialism and Civic Freedom, Chapter 9, (Forthcoming, Cambridge 2008), 16.

55. Thomas Pogge, “Economic Justice and National Borders,” Revision 22 (2) 1999, 29.

56. Ignatieff, Empire Lite, 114–115.

57. Ignatieff, Lesser Evil, 100.

58. Ignatieff, Empire Lite, 62.

59. Ibid. 109.

60. Ibid. 17.

61. Romand Coles, Beyond Gated Politics (Minnesota, 2005), 6.

62. Ibid. 6.

63. Richard Ned Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics; Ethics, Interests and Orders (Cambridge, 2003), 63.

64. Ibid.

65. Ignatieff, Lesser Evil, 29.

66. Ignatieff, Empire Lite, 11.

67. Ferguson, Empire, xxvi.

68. Michael Walzer, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2 (Winter, 1973), 160–180.

69. See Max Weber, “Politics as Vocation,” available at .

70. Walzer, “Political Action; The Problem of Dirty Hands,” 180.

71. Harold Laski, “The Apotheosis of the State.” The New Republic 7 (1916), 302–304

72. Ignatieff, Empire Lite, 4.

73. Ferguson, Colossus, 12.

74. Lionel Curtis, The Project of a Commonwealth (Macmillan and Co; London, 1915), 691.

75. See Jeanne Morefield, “‘An Education to Greece’: The Round Table, Imperial Theory, and the Uses of History,” History of Political Thought, 28 (Summer 2007), 328–361.

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