The Alcove

Foreign Policy and the Fear of Boredom

Michael Ignatieff worries that liberalism devolves into mere “managerial quietism” unless it is on a crusade. But there are worse things than some peace and quietism.

By Jordan Michael Smith

Tagged Foreign PolicyLiberalismMichael IgnatieffNew York Review of Books

I admire Michael Ignatieff’s courage in entering electoral politics, I voted for him when he was Canada’s Liberal party leader, and I’ve profited from reading his writings over the years. But he is a man who seems unable to learn from his intellectual mistakes.

He demonstrates this flaw in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, where he reviews two books on American foreign policy written by Englishmen: one by the Marxist historian Perry Anderson, the other by the diplomatic specialist David Milne.

After rendering a fair and thoughtful critique of Anderson’s book, American Foreign Policy and its Thinkers, he provides what he thinks is a forceful defense of liberalism but is actually a devastating indictment of his wing of the ideology:

Liberalism risks becoming nothing more than resigned managerial quietism unless those seeking a more liberating politics constantly challenge it to deliver more. Whatever our politics, we all stand in need of a historical vision that believes there is a deep logic to the unfolding of time.

No, we don’t. In fact, the wisest strain of liberal thinkers knew just the opposite: that history has no discernible logic, that it is the product of personal and impersonal forces that are neither foreseeable nor inevitable. “There are no simple congruities in life or history,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History. “The cult of happiness erroneously assumes them. It is possible to soften the incongruities of life endlessly by the scientific conquest of nature’s caprices, and the social and political triumph over injustice. But all such strategies cannot finally overcome the fragmentary character of human existence.”

Niebuhr wisely saw the indeterminate nature of history. What’s more, his identification of the “cult of happiness” seems an imprecise but nevertheless accurate view of what lies behind the vision of a coherent world. Ignatieff calls it a “need” that we all have but in fact that hunger for clarity and rationality is not universal. It is more like a tendency, one that thinkers like Ignatieff fall prey to. It is rooted partly in something he writes in the preceding line—he is concerned that liberalism devolves into merely “managerial quietism” unless it is on a crusade. There is another term for his concern: fear of boredom. As Josh Marshall wrote in regards to Paul Berman, another liberal thinker with messianic tendencies, “for intellectuals there is always a craving that times would be … well, just a little more interesting.” But, Marshall saw, “Grandiose visions beget grandiose actions, which often end tragically.”

A liberal foreign policy’s primary aim should not be the satisfaction of psychic needs for clarity, teleology, or spiritual liberation. Such goals are endless, vague, and unnecessary. Liberals should above all strive for a foreign strategy based around securing what Michael Lind in The American Way of Strategy calls “the American way of life,” consisting of a republican government and a middle-class society. Such a project is ambitious enough. Achieving justice in American society alone—what Ignatieff derides as managerial quietism—is an impossible task, one always vulnerable to backsliding and failures. To insist on more is to court failure at best and disaster at worst.

Now, it may happen that defending the American way of life occasionally requires that we protect other people—protecting the Eurasian land mass from being dominated from a hostile power is precisely why we went to a hot and cold war against Germany and the Soviet Union, saving Western Europe and Japan in the process. And perhaps there are rare grievous humanitarian emergencies that require any capable country to intervene to stop the hemorrhaging. Such situations can be evaluated on a case-by-case basis judged by the possibilities for success and a costs-benefits analysis. But to declare from the outset that liberals must support a more ambitious foreign policy to fulfill desires for adventure and some sort of dialectic is folly. Some things are worse than some peace and quietism.

Read more about Foreign PolicyLiberalismMichael IgnatieffNew York Review of Books

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing editor at The New Republic. He received the 2023 Richard J. Margolis Award for social justice journalism.

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