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States and Political Tradecraft 10 Years Out

Winter 2012 Tête À Tête

States and Political Tradecraft 10 Years Out

On the State, Politics and Political Tradecraft 10 Years OutGB goes fireside with the polymath professor and recent political battler to chat about the future look and content of government, governors and the governed

GB: What will politics be – as a vocation and as a concept – some 10 to 15 years from now?

MI: That is a challenging question. The only way to answer a question projecting into the future is to project back through the past in order to try and see how politics has changed in the last 40 years. Party loyalties are ebbing. The party used to be the form and focus of political mobilization. Party used to have an extremely important role in getting different races, religions, creeds and regions into the room. But parties, like all civil society actors, are showing signs of ageing and weakness. Party labels are less relevant to voters than what they call the air wars – battles of images and impressions. It may well be that political choice and political allegiance are becoming much more analogous to consumer choice and consumer allegiance. You choose a party the way that you choose a car. That did not used to be the case. You were a Liberal or a Conservative or a Progressive or whatever. Those were stable allegiances that were identity-related. Fifteen years down the road, it is hard to see that surviving.

It is also hard to see very coherent political programmes surviving as such – programmes that are cued to identity and stable ethical allegiances. Politics, like everything else, is struggling to adapt to almost unceasing change. Who would have thought, in 2006, when I came into politics, that the most important event that would occur two years later would be a worldwide economic crisis from which, in 2012, we have still not exited. It is a little foolish to imagine a stable identity in the future when change is the reality to which we have to adapt. It does not mean that there are not principles that are stable and clear. In fact, I think that all politics has to be based on a sense of enduring and stable sovereign responsibilities that any government – whatever its label – has to discharge: control of territory; monopoly of the means of force; control of interest rates; control of currency; a capacity to stimulate demand when it proves short, because markets have an inherent tendency to overshoot and undershoot; a very important regulation function; and, among other things, a critical monopoly function. Indeed, the biggest emerging issue in global politics today is actually an old one that was seen some 300 years ago in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: monopoly. Everybody thinks that the issue is inequality. Of course, inequality is a big issue (to which I shall return in a moment). But the real issue is monopoly. We have entities in the global economy that are ‘too big to fail’ – as it were – and can bring entire economies down with themselves. It seems to me that the role of government in a competitive market economy is to prevent entities from becoming too big to fail, and thereby from posing systemic risk. That is a very radical agenda. Our current agenda about ‘too big to fail’ is to identify who these entities are, and to subject them to particular stress tests. But it is not to break these entities up. I am not sure that we are not moving into a world where we may have to break up some of these outfits because they prove to constitute a systemic risk to the global economy.

There is also, as mentioned, a crucial equality function in a modern system of government. This equality function is not about defining, ex ante, what the appropriate distribution of income for an economy ought to be, but rather about making sure that we take very seriously the importance of equality of opportunity as a condition of productivity and competitiveness and social cohesion. We are way off the mark in this respect.

GB: Do you still see government as the key global actor 10 to 15 years from now?

MI: I do not see how any other actor could be so important. When you look at what happened in 2008, we had endless cheap talk about global governance, transnational civil society, the passing of sovereignty, and about how globalization was pulling apart national frontiers and national authority. No sooner do you have a global economic shock than the first people to whom everybody turns are the US President and Secretary of the Treasury, the Prime Minister of Canada, the British Prime Minister, the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany. There are, of course, all kinds of facilitating and coordinating roles that transnational organizations have to play. But there is only one power that has coercive capacity. That is why the buck stops at political authority and sovereign authority: you have the capacity to coerce; you have the cops; and you have the regulators. Not so with international organizations.

Fifteen years down the road, what I hope will happen is that we will have responsible sovereigns – sovereigns that do not transfer their liability to stronger ones: every tub on its own bottom. Fiscal discipline should be distributed among sovereigns. Of course, there must be increased coordination among sovereigns to restrain, control or manage systemic risk. But what strikes me as being true in this global crisis is that everybody is looking for confidence, certainty and closure – all of which depend on having sovereigns that can, if necessary, coerce on the one hand, and mobilize on the other, in order to get people to do what they have to do. In short, sovereignty is not over.

GB: Who will be number two if governments are still number one?

MI: I would hope that transnational organizations that are responsible and accountable to sovereigns, and through sovereigns to the people, will be number two – number two in the sense that I would like to see a financial stability board, for example, having serious authority to prevent systemic economic risk. I would like to have a global climate change authority with the capacity to hold sovereigns to specific delivery targets in climate change. So, government first, and transnational coordination authority second. And then – needless to say – the transnational corporation will be third. As Ian Bremmer and others have pointed out, the salient development in this area is the emergence of state transnationals: China National Petroleum Corporation, China Investment Funds Company Limited, and the Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds. They will all be enormous players precisely because they are state entities. Sovereigns at the national level will certainly have to develop national interest tests in relation to these companies. Finally, the fourth player out there will be transnational civil society. Look at Human Rights Watch. In 1976, it was a small office and secretariat, and today it has an operating budget of nearly US $50 million, and – to be sure – an organization with global reach.

So, to sum up, we will have sovereigns as number one, then much-improved and increased inter-sovereign cooperation mediated by multilateral organizations, and finally transnational civil society acting as a kind of control – almost as the parliament that holds the executive responsible. Transnational corporations are also held in check presumably by transnational civil society – and, to some extent, by sovereigns. If we get it right, this will be a world in which there is accountability within this network. But if we get it wrong, then we will just have more chaos, confusion and evasion of responsibility.

GB: What will be the big issues or stakes in this world that you describe?

MI: I have always said that the nature of the chief problems of the 21st century is the same as that of problems in every century – and that is political. We know what our problems are: climate change, demographic transition, competitiveness, sustainability and governability. The key question is whether we have political systems in which political leaders are able to tell the people the truth, and get them to move toward where they have to go. I do not think that there is any problem that we cannot solve if we have good politics. Good politics is not just leadership, but also about political systems that force accountability on leaders – force problems on leaders – and prevent leaders from avoiding the search for real solutions. What has scared everybody about the 2008 crisis – to this day – has been the political side. It is not as if people cannot find programmes to restart demand or to prevent systemic risks from wiping out people’s savings. I am talking about the political leadership required to get budgets back in balance; to impose austerity on unwilling public sectors; to drag down labour costs; and so on. The agenda of change against the crisis is relatively clear; the problem is the politics. And so the number one challenge facing us is the viability and health of democratic political systems. Is democracy up to the challenge? I feel very certain that it is. Actually, I think that Canada is a rather good example of a society that has ferocious political debate – I myself did not do so well in those debates – and has faced up to many key challenges. Canada has pretty good fiscal discipline, and pretty good banking regulations. Having said this, we are not dealing with the problem of inequality; we are not dealing with the Aboriginal problem; and we, of course, are not dealing with climate change. We know that we have to deal with demographic transition, and we know that we have to deal with health care. But the system is at least framing these issues properly.

GB: What is medium and what is message in this world? What are political tactics and strategy some 15 years from now?

MI: The medium and the message often diverge. A political genius is someone who knows how to maintain differentiation with an opponent when there in fact is no differentiation at all – in other words, to send a message that says that we are offering you an alternative when in fact there is not one. This means, in the end, that the battle in democratic politics is always a battle in the centre. One of the paradoxes of the Canadian political system is that, in fact, there is a deep consensus about economic management – organized around fiscal responsibility – with some pretty sharp divergences at the ethical margin. This consensus at the core is a great strength of our system, as opposed to the American system – where at the moment there is a really radical disagreement about the fundamentals of fiscal responsibility. As I look forward 15 years, it becomes very important to our future that we have political systems in which we argue at the margins, but have some degree of agreement about the fundamentals at the centre. And these fundamentals at the centre are quite simple: first, do not spend more than you earn; second, maintain economic sovereignty over your national economy – do not trade economic sovereignty to other actors; third, prepare tomorrow – get your labour force ready by investing in equality of opportunity and training. Preparing for tomorrow means making sure that you can handle the coming demographic bulge. It means making sure that you are dealing with climate change. If you have political systems that agree that this is the broad agenda for tomorrow, and that this is how we have to manage the economy today, then you can fuss and fight about anything else that you wish.

GB: There do not seem to be any political heroes – or major agents of change, or transformative figures – in this world. Is this correct?

MI: On the contrary. We started the conversation by saying that there is going to be dramatic change. The issue is that we do not know whence it will come. If you and I had been sitting here some 10 years ago, who would have predicted that we would be talking about a world in which China is the number two economy, Brazil is number seven, and Canada is number 10 or so? The world has changed dramatically. It has a multiplicity of change agents.

Radical change – in terms of technology, in war decorum, or in response to crisis and breakdown – will require political leadership. You get political leadership of a heroic kind when you have heroic challenges that require decisive leadership. We may get there. But whatever happens, the thing that we most need to understand is what government must do – rain or shine, Conservative or Liberal or Green or other. We need good managers, yes; and we need leaders who are good managers. But we also need good leaders who are deeply democratic. When I say that the problems that we face are political, I speak of problems of persuasion and argument – not problems of a managerial or technocratic character. I speak of persuading the people that we need to make some difficult choices together – that we need to put something aside for the rainy day that is coming. And here is why we need to do it. This may well require unheroic leadership, but it will require brave leadership, nonetheless.

GB: Where – in which theatres – will the political contests of which you speak be most acute?

MI: We did not predict anything. It is ever important to remember what blindsided us: 9/11, the 2008 crisis. We were not – to be fair – totally blindsided by the rise of China. But we were blindsided by the Arab Spring. I do not think that anybody predicted that some humiliated Tunisian fruit-seller would set himself on fire – only to unleash transformative change across a huge, strategically important region. So let us start with modesty. We are no better at predicting the future than we ever were.

Evidently, good research is really important in trying to make any intelligent predictions. For me, the lead example of such great research is the Arab Human Development Reports. About a decade ago, these reports – based on terrific social science – told us that the Middle East is a tinderbox. They did not predict the Arab Spring, but anybody reading them saw some major potential triggers: educated young men under the age of 35 festering in societies that are burdened by heavy unemployment, underutilization of males (in particular), and governance systems that are not creating patents or translating books or investing in post-secondary education, science or technology. It is all in these reports. Consider what those reports were telling us would happen 10 years down the road. So yes, we were blindsided by the Arab Spring, but we should not have been.

We need to invest in knowledge, and we need to be constantly battling against settled assumptions about how the world is. Even looking at myself, I am the creature of the Cold War. I grew up in a world the axis of which was the North Atlantic. That world is gone. And what makes the 21st century exciting is that I am in a totally new world. Is the place to watch the South China Sea? That is what many people think today: Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and so on. The whole region is combustible in myriad ways – a theatre of battle for strategic influence. Obama’s deployment of troops to Australia is telling us that he sees that region as important for the future. Does that region end in conflict? There is no reason for which it necessarily should. But heaven knows that there are many examples in which conflict was perfectly irrational, but occurred nonetheless. Or is it actually the Arctic – because of great power competition in general, or an energy race in particular – on which we should be focussing? There is no way of knowing. There is also no way of knowing exactly how climate change is going to change global politics. We ought to have research into all of these areas. Forewarned is forearmed. But let us also be humble enough to know that, when it happens, we will be as surprised as we ever were.

GB: How do we educate the future class of political leaders for the 21st century? What does the curriculum look like, what are the methods, and what is the mentality that we are preparing?

MI: That is a wonderful question, and one that matters to me a lot, because I have been a teacher – on and off – for all of my life. Even in politics, I felt myself a teacher. Preparing students for relentless change and for the unpredictable means, paradoxically, that it is more important than ever to teach students – future leaders – history. And it is more important than ever to teach them basic moral philosophy – the old stuff, going right back to Aristotle. What you want to fight against is the tendency to believe that the only thing that matters is watching the latest news headlines and the latest Twitter feed. You want to teach them to stand back, and to use the best traditions of the academy to understand what is new and unprecedented; to teach calm; to teach judgment; to teach reflection; and to teach suspicion of one’s own instincts.

You cannot afford provincialism. The real enemy of serious engagement with the world is thinking that you know it. That certainty comes from being provincial. So what you really want to teach is unceasing curiosity, and indeed unceasing impatience with your own provincialism. We teachers will want to put some conceptual ground under the feet of people so that they are not frantically absorbing information – in an age of information glut – without turning that information into knowledge. We have to reapprehend the distinction – the sharp distinction – between information and knowledge. For it is knowledge that matters, and it is only knowledge that allows us to see any pattern in information. And what matters most of all – to be sure – is wisdom, which is the rarest quality of them all.


Michael Ignatieff is a Senior Resident at Massey College, University of Toronto, and a past leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

(Photograph: Courtesy of Michael Ignatieff)

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