“More compassion, less judgment”
“This will wake us all up forever,” says Michael Ignatieff. The Canadian human rights advocate and president of the Central European University explains how “everybody will learn” from the current corona crisis engulfing the globe. He expounds on his feud with Hungary’s Victor Orban, reflects on his own indestructible Russian soul, and extols the courage to tell the people the brutal truth.
“My mum used to say life isn't for sissies,” Michael Ignatieff once told a newspaper. The Canadian of blue blooded Russian descent has never been shy to take risks for what he sees as worthwhile goals, even if he’s had to pay dearly.
His greatest controversy has been his support of the American-led invasion of Iraq while working as director of a human rights center at Harvard University. (He later apologized.) Then, he ventured into politics and rose to the helm of Canada’s Liberal Party only to fail spectacularly.
In 2016, Ignatieff embarked on a new adventure to become the president of Central European University, an elite, higher education institution founded and financed by self-made billionaire George Soros. The new job soon turned into an epic battle with Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban, one of Europe’s masters of populism. Their bitter duel is far from over, but it has found a temporary truce with Ignatieff relocating his campus from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna, Austria.
The lifelong liberal has written seventeen books, including two novels. He has taught at Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge universities. But first and foremost, Professor Ignatieff is a distinguished scholar of human rights. That makes him a perfect fit to discuss the current coronavirus crisis during which fundamental rights are being overruled over night. Hundreds of millions of people are locked in their homes. Phone companies are handing out private data to governments to monitor their citizens. We observe the establishment of Orwellian states, it seems, and this with remarkably little protest by the people.
Professor Ignatieff, are we witnessing the emergence of police states established by governments driven by fear and panic?
No. What we're witnessing is the willingness of democratic peoples, free peoples, to surrender their freedom in order to protect each other. This is where I think human rights analysis is both useful but also deficient. We need to remember these human rights and restore them as soon as we can afterwards. Constitutional liberty must be reestablished. But in every democratic tradition there is provision for emergencies.
Emergencies where liberties have to be sacrificed for the sake of an overwhelming public good?
It seems to me this is a case. Clearly, because I'm speaking to you from Hungary, there are politicians who will seek to use the temporary suppression of human rights and make that suppression permanent. Clearly, this is going to happen in China. It will accelerate the development of what you call a police state, but those trends were under way before the crisis. The crisis merely accelerates them.
In democratic societies, on the other hand, what is happening is an extraordinary display of solidarity by healthy people on behalf of people who are vulnerable. Everybody's got a grandmother, grandfather. Everybody's got someone with preexisting health conditions. They're aware that the only way to beat this is to reduce social contact. I don't regard this as the harbinger of a police state. I regard this, on the contrary, as an act of solidarity. It highlights the limitations of using a human rights lens exclusively to understand this.
If we look at the Western world, who handles the corona crisis best, and who has failed tragically?
The crisis exposes the limitations of our political journalism in which political journalism is slightly like movie reviews or theater reviews. "Oh, he did well." "Oh, she did badly." We have political journalism that is leadership-obsessed in ways that don't really capture what the problem is with us, with our own inability to face up to realities. We're all having a great deal of difficulty understanding simple facts like: Someone buys contaminated meat from an animal in a food market in Wuhan, 9,000 kilometers away, sometime before Christmas, and there's interspecies transmission of a virus that no one has ever seen before.
It's not until just before Christmas that Chinese doctors understand they're dealing with something that is unprecedented for which they don't have a cure. It takes another month for the biggest country in the world to even understand that they're faced with a mortal threat. Then it cascades into what we've seen.
The reality is everybody has been slow. Everybody. It’s easy to blame politicians, but we cannot excuse ourselves either. Then the question becomes: who's to blame? I just think it's very human. If you look at Albert Camus' The Plague, he gets it right. This is very human of everybody around the world to underestimate a mortal threat that comes from a long way away.
Doctors in China you mentioned were warning early on, but they were silenced. Some of them were abducted and are still missing. Evidence is mounting that the Chinese Communist regime has kept the world in the dark about the devastating virus that is now killing tens of thousands of people and crippling the world economy. Shouldn't that government be held accountable?
Held accountable by whom?
Who would you suggest?
The only people who can hold the Chinese accountable are the people of China. We can wave our fingers at China forever. It's not going to make any difference. The honest question that we have to ask is, “If there was an outbreak of a mysterious virus in Switzerland in December 2019, can the Swiss be absolutely satisfied in their heart of hearts that doctors who see this would have been listened to immediately and that effective measures would have been taken?” I'm not absolutely sure of the answer.
As a Swiss citizen I would say our government definitely could and would not have silenced our doctors as the Chinese Communist party did in China.
Sure. Don't hear me as making an apology for the Chinese. I loathe this regime and always have and always will, and I loathe it all the more because I think that free circulation of information is the only way to deal with coronavirus. All of this fatuous talk that democracies are less effective than authoritarian regimes at dealing with virus makes me ill, as well. Look at the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. That's how a democratic politician should do his job. We have countless examples of democratic politicians doing the job as it should be done, which is telling people what they don't want to hear: bad news. The thing that I worry about is an assumption that faced with bad news at the beginning we would have done so much better than the Chinese. In the future, we will learn.
What will we learn?
This will wake us all up forever. It will tell every leader that one of his first jobs will be to check how many masks do we have? How many ventilators do we have? What are our emergency preparedness regimes? Everybody will learn from this. The criticism of who failed and who succeeded is a foolish business. Some countries just had an easier time of it. My point is that we need much more compassion and much less judgment here.
Do you think geopolitics will be fundamentally different after we come through this crisis?
There's the continued abdication of the United States that will be accelerated by this crisis. because for a president of the United States to waste time attacking the World Health Organization (WHO) in the middle of a pandemic seems an abdication of leadership — even if the WHO does deserve criticism for being too cozy with China.
The world will have to wake up to a political reality in which democratic states cannot take their leadership from Washington. I actually think that's good news. The age of empire is over. There's no point being tragic about the decline of American power. That's a problem for Americans. The challenge for Europeans is to develop the capacities, the cohesion, the unity necessary to be masters of their own affairs. The decline of American power is, by and large, an opportunity for Europe.
Has this crisis not just proven that Europe is not united but rather a group of nation states each looking for itself?
it remains to be seen whether Europe will seize the opportunity or not. In terms of the broader geostrategic changes, , I'm sure that the pandemic doesn't create a new world. Rather, it lays bare the contours of the world we're in. One contour is that American power is declining relatively and absolutely. The second contour that's being laid bare is the fact that the nation-state remains the only legitimate source of political authority in the world. The pandemic reinforces the power of the nation-state because it's the nation-state that has the only credible answer to the question, "Who will protect me now?"
We can criticize a nationalist like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán all we want, but in a pandemic crisis, everybody turns to the nation-state for protection, and it means more borders will close. The third change is that while capital will remain as mobile as ever and globalization will continue, labor will be ever more restricted. I run a university, and we recruit students from 100 countries, and I have no idea whether that model will be viable in a year's time.
Because I think the traditional use of the visa to minimize the risk of terrorists and subversion will now have epidemic control added, as a new justification for restricting entry into countries. We may go back to a world that I remember from my childhood. I remember flying across the Atlantic in the 1950s and you had to carry a yellow card,listing your vaccinations, along with your passport.
A vaccine card?
A yellow vaccine card that indicated that you'd had vaccination for yellow fever or some other diseases. We will develop new regimes of international vaccination control and/or epidemic control. That may slow the movement of people across borders, but the movement of people across borders is very deeply rooted in both the economic structure of the modern world and in people's deepest desires. The controls on labor and the mobility of labor will be a source of political conflict for years, even decades, to come. Especially in countries like Switzerland and the United States and other places which are heavily dependent on foreign labor.
“Control” is a term that has become very popular these days. Control of the press, for example, in China or Asia. But also in Europe. You have vehemently criticized Victor Orban, the prime minister of you host country. You recently said about Orban, "He has taken advantage of the situation to take Hungary a further step away from democracy." Can you explain to our readers how you come to this conclusion?
In a normal democracy, emergencies occur. There's a whole jurisprudence of emergency in the theory of democracy. That theory says there are times when you have to suspend rights, but the suspension must always be publicly justifiable. It must be passed by legislature after full debate, and it must be time-limited. That is, it mustn't be indefinite. Democracy's done this in many occasions. It's a way in which democracy uses democracy to protect itself. Orbán has introduced emergency powers that are without limit. It means that he rules essentially by decree. There is no control. This model of authoritarian, single-party rule could spread throughout parts of southern Europe. It could spread into the Balkans, even incite the Czechs and the Poles to abdicate their freedoms. It could become an anti-democratic epidemic that will spread even further. It's a serious matter.
We interviewed Hungary’s Minister of Justice Judit Varga, last week. When we confronted her with the modalities of the Hungarian emergency law, she said, "The state of emergency will cease when the danger is no longer present. That is an objective criterion." Ms. Varga resolutely resisted claims that the state of emergency had "eliminated" parliament. “Legally speaking, the state of emergency would be lifted by parliament. This binds the government. So, the new law strengthens the parliament.”
I don't want to get into an argument with Judit Varga, but I would just say that you then have to ask her the question, “Why did she limit the parliament?” The opposition in parliament said, "We're prepared to vote for a emergency legislation provided it's for 90 days." Why didn't she agree to that? That sounds reasonable. Ninety days. Then they come back to parliament and have to secure approval. They didn't want 90 days. They want to decide themselves how long the emergency goes.
She ignores, as she always does, what the opposition is saying here, which is: “Of course we should have emergency legislation, but it ought to be limited in duration.” Then, if they need the extension of powers, they can come back. But now it's entirely up to the regime in power to declare when the emergency is over.
Your school, the Central European University, was founded by George Soros. Orban sees in George Soros the “public enemy number one.” How has this rivalry affected your professional life?
We've been expelled. It is illegal for us to offer US-accredited degrees in Hungary. So, we've had to move the university to Vienna. That's the only example of an expulsion of a free institution from an EU member state since anybody can remember, in fact, since the 1930s in Germany. It's an extremely sinister example. It's both a personal attack on the founder of the university, but it's also an attack on a free institution. Most universities in Hungary are under the effective control of the government. This is the one university that's not.
It's another example of Orbán's desire to control everything, and we've refused to comply. And so we had to move out. It's extremely difficult to move a university at any time, but especially so in the middle of a global health emergency, as you can imagine. It’s not easy, but we're doing it. The university is surviving, and it will thrive, and it will not be destroyed by Viktor Orbán, by health emergencies, or anything else.
Soros gets a lot of negative press. You have known him closely for years. What is the biggest misconception regarding his person?
I think some of this is frankly anti-Semitic. He is a Holocaust survivor. There are very old, sinister tropes about global Jewish financial speculators. The dislike of Soros taps into disgraced rhetoric that ought to have no place in 21st-century European life, but unfortunately survives.
In terms of the biggest misunderstanding? I think he's a political philanthropist. This is a man who wants to use the money to defend certain values. It's a very unusual use of philanthropy to further a particular kind of democratic freedom wherever he sees it threatened.
This is a man who played a crucial role in opening up a dialogue between white and black South Africans in the 1970s and '80s to enable a peaceful transition in South Africa. This is a man who, from the early 1980s, funded dissidents in Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary seeking freedom from the Communist regime. This is a man who has consistently funded liberal causes in the United States, ranging from young people who're black Americans and are locked up in prisons, to decriminalizing drugs, to a whole number of other cases.
He invests in issues that he thinks will increase human freedom and diminish human tyranny. That, needless to say, makes him very unpopular.
What about allegations that Soros is operating a global network?
Stories about a Soros network are 100% false. They are all a fantasy of right-wing paranoia. In fact, his experience with being an investor in progressive causes has been one of very frequent defeat. It's not going well, let's be clear.
Many reports claim that Soros is supportive of mass migration into Europe and the West, and that some of his NGOs are financing migration projects.
Soros has never been in favor of unlimited migration. It's also astounding to claim that a single person could be causing the migration flows which are streaming in from Sub-Saharan Africa. People are on the march who've never heard George Soros' name. People are fleeing from Syria who've never heard George Soros' name. People are sitting in refugee camps in Greece, some of them have heard Soros' name because he is trying to assist them, but nobody moves anywhere because Soros tells them to.
The idea that global mass migration, a result of desertification, state collapse, failures of development across whole continents, could be attributed to a single person is a truly paranoid fantasy.
Your ancestors, the Ignatieffs, were "White Russians" opposed to the Communists. The family patriarch, Count Pavel Ignatieff, your grandfather, was an influential member of the court of Czar Nicholas II. He was also friends with the likes of Vladimir Nabokov. Your grandmother was born “Princess Natasha Mestchersky” and travelled to Paris to learn the “rudiments of cooking” at Le Cordon Bleu. Mr. Ignatieff, how much of a Russian soul lives on in you?
There is an aspect of the Russian soul question that always amuses me. If I go to Russia and I'm clapped on the back by some apparatchik of Mr. Putin, or in the old days Mr. Brezhnev, they would always try and give me another vodka. And many toasts they would say, "Do you feel your Russian soul?"
When do you feel content with your Russian soul?
I have a Russian soul because I have Russian ancestors. But the Russian soul that I love and respect is Pushkin who wrote verses in praise of freedom, Tolstoy whose novels are one long exploration of the longing for freedom. What I despise is the idea that tyranny, darkness, coercion, and violence are native to the Russian political tradition and a permanent part of it and, therefore, justified. Everybody from Czar Nicolas II. through Lenin, Stalin, and now Putin uses the phraseology of the Russian soul and it makes me ill.
Looking at Putin, who has his power extended to 2036, one indeed tends to think that the idea of the Russian soul is very much s to tyranny.
People say, "Well, that's just Russia." That's what I despise. Some of the most passionate and courageous defenses of human freedom have been Russian. Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Chekhov —the list of people who inspire us with an image of freedom have Russian names. That's the Russia that I still care about, that still moves me and gives me a feeling of kinship.
Take Anna Akhmatova. She was a poet who was exiled inside her own country — humiliated, oppressed, pushed around by Stalin's people for thirty years, and yet she ended up writing the great poetry of the Russian twentieth century. That's the Russian that I revere, and that's the Russia that will never die. That's the Russia that Putin in all his extended power can never do anything to harm.