WHAT IS IT that compels us to act on behalf of strangers? When the eye chances on a television news report of children starving in an African village, or women weeping in the ruins of a bombed-out European town, why do we feel we must act? To be blunt, why should we care about the Kurds, or the Iraqi people?
The simple answer is a sense of common humanity - but how has that developed, when our instinct is to limit compassion to our own family, tribe or ethnic grouping? Michael Ignatieff explores the origins and implications of the Western world's culture of universal human rights in this book, which also examines post-modern warfare and the people who engage in it. If you want to understand the depth of the mess the international community is in, this is vital reading.
The tone is rigorously highbrow, as you might expect from someone who allows himself to be described on the first page as "one of the UK's most influential and incisive intellectuals". From 1993 onwards he journeyed "through the landscapes of modern ethnic warfare", meeting "the new warriors: the barefoot boys with Kalashnikovs, the paramilitaries in wraparound sunglasses, the turbanned zealots of the Taliban who checked their prayer mats next to their guns". This is Third World War tourism, in which the wealthy Westerner pauses just long enough to take a mental snap of the warrior or the victim, before passing on. But it does at least add colour to Ignatieff's musings, which are arranged in five essays.
The best of them is also the most relevant just now, when the United Nations secretary-general is playing such an important part in world affairs. Ignatieff accompanies Kofi Annan's predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, on a flying visit to Rwanda, Angola, Zaire and Burundi, meeting victims of violence and heads of state. Watching him at close quarters enables the author to consider the ambiguity of the secretary-general's position - which depends not on power but moral authority.
Boutros-Ghali is resigned to the disarray among Western powers exposed by the fall of Srebrenica, and that remains at the heart of the problem of how to deal with Saddam Hussein. Speaking to Hutu and Tutsi leaders in Burundi, he urges them to work out a solution together. "You seem to assume," he says, "that the international community will save you. You are deceived. Remember Beirut. Many good friends of mine died there, deceived by the same assumption. The international community is quite content to let you massacre each other to the last man. The donor community is fatigued. It is tired of having to save societies that seem incapable of saving themselves."
Things might have been different if there was oil in Burundi, or images of suffering that were of sufficient novelty value to lead the evening television news. Among the material in this book that has appeared elsewhere - as articles or lectures - is the first essay, a workman-like exploration of the ethics of reporting war and suffering on television. This is the medium through which the modern concept of universal human rights has become established in the wake of our guilt about the abandonment of the Jews, says Ignatieff.
It is a fiction, he says, this idea that all humankind is equal. And yet it is a more helpful and sustaining fiction than that of nationalism, for which men and women must deny their own experience and individuality. Wondering how neighbours become enemies, he spends a night with the Serb militia in the basement of an abandoned farmhouse in eastern Croatia, listening to their halting attempts to explain why they are sufficiently different from the Croats, 250 yards away through the darkness, to justify killing them.
Ignatieff identifies the guerrillas, militias and warlords who wage war, shattering the rules observed by professional soldiers. He examines how the Red Cross tries to maintain those rules by appealing not to an ideal of human rights that is obsolete in post-modern warfare, but to some deeper warrior's code. Even that disintegrates when chains of command have broken down and it is a destitute orphan who is holding the Kalashnikov. In such a situation, aid workers must devise new ways to communicate - just as they must deal with burnout and self-doubt.
The great temptation is to abandon hope and leave the warring groups to their own fate. When principles do compel us to intervene, liberals have a problem - those very principles also restrict us from having what Ignatieff calls the imperial ruthlessness required to make intervention succeed. The UN has an imperial approach - the wealthy presuming to run the affairs of the poor - but not the moral (or military) strength to push it through. The Gulf War was one of the few modern situations in which democratic politicians have succeeded in creating the consensus required for international military operations, says Ignatieff. Even then, the fragility of their agreement and the risks involved meant the Allies were not ruthless enough to remove Saddam Hussein altogether.
Ignatieff offers no solutions, only comforting words. The world is not becoming more chaotic or violent, he says, although our failure to understand and act makes it seem so. The narrative of compassion and moral commitment that holds us together is weak, but stronger than it was 50 years ago. For all the ambiguities of their position, the army of activists and aid workers who mediate between the wealthy and the needy are the means by which more can be done in future - "our moral alibi". Is that enough? Ignatieff's only conclusion is that the jury is still out.Reuse content