Michael Ignatieff was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1947. He read history at the University of Toronto, and wrote a doctorate at Harvard University. He is currently the Carr Professor and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He has published widely on human rights, the Balkans, and international relations.
In his most recent book, Empire Lite: Nation-building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, published earlier this year, Ignatieff argues that the ‘institutional collapse' of failed states has become more and more common since the end of the Cold War, so that we have now reached a point where "there is enough failure to create an ongoing crisis of order in a globalised world". State failure is a problem that generally cannot be remedied internally: "nations sometimes fail, and when they do only outside help – imperial power – can get them back on their feet". Since national power equates in the final analysis to military muscle – "September 11 rubbed in the lesson that global power is still measured by military capability" – the United States is the natural nation-building power in the world, and must shoulder the burden of the new imperialism.
What the new imperialism should look like – how to go about nation-building, in other words – is a less simple matter. Ignatieff argues that there are intrinsic conflicts of interest within the evolving models of democratisation and development that he documents in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. "The conflict at the heart of the nation-building enterprise everywhere" is "between the imperial interests of the intervening powers …and the local interests of the people and their leadership to rule themselves." (vii). Or again between "the desire of local elites to run their own show and the international concern to keep them in leading strings". Ambitions for democratic transition are, for both citizens of failed states and potential imperialists, defined by "the titanic anti-colonial figures of the twentieth century – from Gandhi to Mandela" who "succeeded in making the idea of self-determination … triumph over the imperial idea of racial hierarchy"). This is particularly true for the elites of most of the potential subject countries, who "are all the creations of modern nationalism, and modern nationalism's primary ethical content is the imperative of self-determination". All this represents a potent dynamic of contention at the centre of any nation-building project, between local elites and new imperial administrations.
Ignatieff argues that the main lesson for Afghanistan of the nation-building efforts in the Balkans is that "democracy only works when it goes hand in hand with the rule of law". The most important element in a nation-building programme, therefore, is "helping the Afghans to rewrite the criminal and civil code and train a new generation of lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and criminal investigators". These are the "legal foundations" without which "no country can make the transition from a war economy to a peace economy". When it comes to rebuilding the economy, Ignatieff argues that Afghanistan "needs fewer humanitarian bureaucrats and more civil and electrical engineers". Nevertheless, "infrastructure does not create a nation. Bosnia has all the roads and schools it needs, yet its ethnic groups remain as divided as ever". Economic aid without the building of the state will come to nothing, for in the end it is only the state which can provide "the schools, roads, and hospitals that distinguish society from the jungle".
Will Europe play a major part in this project of nation-building in the next few years? Ignatieff thinks it unlikely. The reason for this is principally that Europe's "national identity became post-military and, in this sense, post-national". Without the military might, Europe does not have the power to engage in the new imperialism. The US is "the West's last military nation state", and as such, the task of stabilising and democratising failed states will fall to it.