Battle without blood

Michael Ignatieff talks about the poison of nationalism, the politics of fear and the strange future of war.


Max Garrone
May 4, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

Canadian journalist Michael Ignatieff has completed a trilogy on nationalism in the post-Cold War era with his newest book "Virtual War," an investigation of how the West may wage war in the future and the inherent problems in fighting for humanitarian causes without putting troops on the ground. Ignatieff spoke to Salon about nationalism, the nature of contemporary war and the perils of reporting on history in the making.

What's your working definition of nationalism?

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I distinguish, first of all, between nationalism and patriotism. Patriotism is strong nationalistic feeling for a country whose borders and whose legitimacy and whose ethnic composition is taken for granted. So there's no national question in the United States, the place is fixed and there's intense national feeling in America that could be called patriotism. And it's not necessarily threatening to other questions. Nationalism is a different thing.

Nationalism could almost be defined as intense national feeling for a country that does not yet exist or for someone else's country. The point being that there are lots of nations in the world or national peoples who don't yet have states. They're inside someone else's state and they want a state of their own, and the only way that they can get it is to make a claim for national self-determination that either breaks up the existing state or joins another state. The reason that nationalism is dangerous, the reason that people are against nationalism, is not the strength of the feeling for the nation because any foreigner like me who comes to America feels that this is the most intensely patriotic country in the world.

What does make nationalism dangerous?

Nationalism becomes dangerous when it's attached to a claim for someone else's piece of real estate, or aims to break up an existing state for the sake of the self-determination of a particular national group.

I'm trying to say that there's nothing wrong with nationalism and that the emotions of nationalism are tremendously powerful and even quite ennobling. It's good for people to believe in causes larger than themselves. Otherwise all we've got is competitive individualism. The problem is when it starts busting up existing states and also, there's an additional factor, when it becomes the basis of ethnic majority tyranny. Most demands by nations amount to the claim that what we want is to become masters in our own house, the democratic majority in our own house, and that usually means that we want to kick out other minorities or that they can stay here but on sufferance, if we allow them to.

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What's the prime motivator behind nationalism? Is it the idea of belonging to a larger community?

A lot of the logic driving this process is fear. It's not just aspiration, it's not just hopes and dreams, it's also just fear. The reason that the Croats want a state of their own is that they fear being cut into little pieces by the Serbs. The reason the Kosovars want a state of their own is because they fear being cut into little pieces by the Serbs. A lot of ethnic-majority tyrannies are driven by fear, driven by the idea that if you had a state -- that is, an army and police of your own -- nobody's going to wake you up in the middle of the night and slaughter you.

And one of the reasons that the American civic nationalism has worked -- and there's a civic nationalism in Britain and dozens of other countries -- is because they've solved the fear problem. They've got stable states in which different ethnic groups share and alternate power and the state is not ethnicized. The state is not the creature of a particular ethnic group and that then means that people go and sleep in their beds and don't fear being attacked, and that in my view is what keeps the civic state going. Just that it's solved the fear problem.

One of the problems that I had in reading your book was truly relating to the idea of "virtuality," because while I definitely feel distance from the Kosovo situation, I'm extraordinarily sympathetic, and I was thinking that at a very basic level I don't have the same sense of fear.

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That's an important insight. That's very true. Fear is the driver everywhere. Not shit-scared; I mean existentially scared. I mean being convinced that you're going to be dragged out of your house and put on a tractor and sent across the border or your wive's going to be raped or your children hit on the head. That kind of fear drives hatred. It's the basic driver of everything, the driver to create your own nation, the driver to commit ethnic cleansing against those you fear. The whole thing.

It comes about because all the states in that region are so incredibly fragile or they've been the instrument of tyranny. And so there's no place that you can be secure unless you have a state which is entirely your own that you don't share with anyone else and that can be counted on to do what you want it to do.

Because all of the states have been compromised by that previous tyranny or the mafias or the nationalists?

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Exactly. One little sidebar so that I don't sound too bloody complacent -- there are a lot of people in America who do not have confidence in the American government or its state. It's important to say that and remember that and not assume that the American state has solved this problem.

I mean talk to any black [person] in Los Angeles. They're just not so clear in their minds that the cops won't break down their doors and beat them up, and they have good historical reasons to be afraid of that. So, bad stuff happens here too.

The question hanging over "Virtual War" is how to moderate a moral impetus in foreign policy. I guess there's this statement that humanitarian intervention for somewhat universally accepted ideas of morality is right, and it's something that should be undertaken but it should be undertaken with a full consideration of intention and if that intention is judged correct then there should be a great commitment to that. Do you think that's a fair summary?

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I think that's fair. I think that my chief concern about the way we're going is that new technology, precision weapons technology, appears to be giving us a new moral alibi. That is, we can intervene at almost zero real costs. I mean there's a financial cost, but the only costs that are ever real are the costs of our soldiers. There's a kind of contradiction that I see in this humanitarian set of intentions. We're going out to rescue people who are being slaughtered or massacred, but we're going to do it at zero personal cost to ourselves.

On the face of it, you think: What contradiction? Why shouldn't we try to help people at the least personal cost to ourselves. I certainly agree. Especially given that we're on the 25th anniversary of Vietnam and there we intervened and boy did it cost us, and you don't want to go there again. But there are problems with this virtual war and some of them I try to describe in the book. The basic problem is that you can't do what you say you want to do. That's the real problem, I think. If you say that we're going to intervene to stop ethnic cleansing but we're only going to do it at 15,000 feet, you can't actually do it. That's the key fact No. 1.

Fact No. 2 is that if you use this high-precision technology, the costs are so low that you can do it almost anywhere you like. The American public, for example, is not aware that a lot of high-precision ordinance is being dropped on Iraq as we speak. You can have virtual wars but also invisible wars, wars that no one knows anything about.

Very soon you're going to be able to wage cyberwar that the public will simply have no awareness of whatsoever. Hit bank accounts, siphon funds out, shut down enemy computers, shut down their guidance systems. Blind potential enemies with worms, viruses and programs of various kinds. And all of this may happen without the slightest bit of public democratic debate. The bottom line in all this stuff is: How do you keep war accountable to the American people when war becomes invisible and virtual? It's by no means certain that, as the technology gets smarter and more sophisticated, our democracy is keeping pace. Is our democracy smart enough and precise enough and alert enough to control war?

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Do you think that the lack of American involvement in wars since Vietnam has altered the way that the American public looks at war?

Your generation and mine have had very little real experience; we've been severed from the direct experience of war by some very good things. By the end of the draft, which is probably a good thing, and by the defeat in Vietnam. And defeat was probably a good thing because the war was unjust and couldn't be continued except at horrendous costs to us and to them. But war has also been taken away from us by this kind of technology. The wars of the future will be fought by computer technicians and by lawyers and by high-altitude specialists, and that may mean that war will be increasingly abstract, increasingly far away, increasingly hard to think about and hard to control, and the reason why it's worth controlling is that war kills people and we should be careful about killing people; we shouldn't do it unless we have to, and we ought to kill the right people and not the wrong people.

I do think that's the extraordinary novelty of this war. We really went much, much further in the direction of war with impunity. I mean that all war aims for impunity, but no war that we've ever fought came so close as this one to achieving lethal perfection with impunity. That's a kind of utopia. Well, we finally got there and now we have to see. It's like the adage that says, "beware of what you want because you might get it." We wanted this and now we've got it, and I'm not sure that we know what to do with it.

One thing I'm sure of is that we can't achieve the humanitarian goals we set out to do with this stuff because achieving humanitarian goals means getting up close and personal. And taking much more risk than we seem able to do. So if we're not willing to take the risks, how serious are our humanitarian principles?

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You received pretty tremendous access to figures like Richard Holbrooke and Wesley Clark. Does the access itself pressure you to write differently?

I wouldn't make too much of the access. That's also a condition of modern war itself. There's a way in which these guys all think absolutely media, day and night. Access is what it's all about, so they spin 24 hours a day and that's a problem. You gotta find some way of staying out of it.

While reading "Virtual War," I was reminded that whenever journalists visit prisons, they usually get advised that everybody is going to say that they're innocent. I had that same thought when you were writing about Holbrooke and Clark.

Yes, I'm rather pro-Holbrooke, and I'm actually rather pro-Clark given the impossible situation that he was put in. He was supposed to run a war that was supposed to last 36 hours and it ran 78 days. He just basically had to improvise the whole goddamn thing from the beginning with an alliance of 19 nations, most of which didn't want to do it at all. You know if you add up all the things he was up against, he did a pretty good job.

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Do I have a deep personal bond with Wes Clark? Never. Hobrooke, ditto. I think no one could have made peace in Bosnia besides Holbrooke.

Just because of the force of his personality?

What's good about him is that he's a maniac in the details and a tremendous motivator. He's a kind of one-man avalanche, really.

It's possible that I was too soft on him. It's possible that he didn't see the Kosovo war coming. He should have seen it. He should have seen it at Dayton in 1995. He didn't.

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There are things that you can say that are pretty sharply critical of him. But I had a gut feeling that he saw the Balkans more clearly than most people and had a bigger vision of what had to happen than most people and was actually committed to being more ruthless and more tough than most of the others. I mean he was the only guy that could go into a room with Milosevic and actually tell Milosevic exactly what he thought. So I admired his toughness and his vision. I still do, in a way. I still think he's a pretty good guy. But you know, a lot of journalists don't think that.

A lot of people think that he's a Machiavellian spinmeister. And may even suspect that I've been spun. But that's one of the toughest aspects of doing this sort of thing: Am I being spun? Of course I'm being spun, but do I see things clearly or not?

I mean the thing that was interesting about being with Holbrooke was that I happened to be there when the whole bloody thing blew up. And I simply got lucky. I'd be fooling you if I said that I knew what was happening when it was happening.

All that I knew was that we flew into Pristina and there were 45 people dead on a hillside and then there were 6 kids shot in a bar, and this was the moment in which the avalanche towards war started. Did I see that at the time? Not really, I couldn't, to be honest. I didn't.

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That's the real problem. It's not the question of 'Did Holbrooke spin you?' The real issue is, if you get the access to see history happen, and I think I did, do you understand the history when it does happen? And the answer to that question is no, you don't.

You're always caught up in events.

Yeah. With my previous book, "Warrior's Honor," I was with the U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on the day that Srebrenica fell, which happened to be a huge historical turning point in the Bosnian war and the history of Europe and the post-Cold War world. It was the worst war crime in Europe since 1945 and I was there as the U.N. Secretary-General learned about it. I was there, in other words, at the moment when he discovered that the U.N. had fucked up as badly as it has ever fucked up in peacetime. Did I understand the significance of what was happening? No. Absolutely not. It's taken me five years to realize how important that moment was.


Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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