What role should democratic deliberation play in decisions about whether or not to engage in human-rights interventions?
In the inaugural lecture of Washington and Lee University's Roger Mudd Center for Ethics on Thursday, Oct. 31, Michael Ignatieff, a renowned author, academic and former Canadian politician, posed that question with respect to the reluctance of the United States to use force in Syria's civil war.
"We all know that interventions can turn out very badly," Ignatieff said. "But after Syria, we know that doing nothing turns out badly, too. There is an important difference. When we intervene, at least some of the consequences are borne by us, whereas when we don't, the consequences are borne exclusively by those we failed to assist."
Ignatieff's lecture was the first event sponsored by the new center, established through a gift to Washington and Lee by its alumnus Roger Mudd, the award-winning journalist and a member of the Class of 1950. Mudd attended the opening event; introduced by Angela Smith, the center's director and the Roger Mudd Professor of Ethics, he received warm, sustained applause from the Lee Chapel audience.
Named in 2005 by Foreign Policy and Prospect Magazine as one of the world's 100 leading public intellectuals, Ignatieff was among a group that prepared the report "The Responsibility to Protect" for the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The report examined the role of international involvement in Kosovo and Rwanda.
In discussing the recent controversy raised by the debate over United States involvement in Syria, Ignatieff said that he and others like him who believe in "the responsibility of states to protect citizens in other nations when their own state is unwilling or unable to do so" have arrived at a moment of truth. They must determine how far to push "the priority of responsibility over the requirement of democratic consent," he said.
"I don't think we have honestly addressed the fact that the practical exercise of responsibility in the international order has depended on discretionary exercises of authority by the president of the United States," Ignatieff said. "Without those exercises of authority, no alliance of democratic states to protect victims has ever been credible. The entire future of intervention depends on the will of the American people, in my judgment."
Ignatieff said that citizens may simply disagree about the use of force in cases where the justice of a cause may seem obvious to some but not to all. "In a democracy, the justice of the cause has to be sufficiently self-evident to a majority for it to become the kind of cause that young men and women can be asked to die for," he said.
The moral heart of a democracy, he added, is the process of "adversarial justification," in which competing principles are addressed in an effort to "show the people the cause is just."
The Mudd Center for Ethics at W&L is committed to fostering serious inquiry into, and thoughtful conversation about, important ethical issues in public and professional life. It seeks to advance dialogue, teaching and research about these issues across the University. The Mudd Center also aims to encourage a multidisciplinary perspective on ethics informed by both theory and practice.