Germany Listening: Michael Ignatieff

Professor Michael Ignatieff, President of the Central European University (CEU), was our guest on 19 November at „Germany Listening“, a series of events organized by Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft and the Master Program International Relations of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt University and the University of Potsdam. He spoke about “Enemies and Adversaries in 21st century politics”

“An adversary wants to beat you in a game; an enemy wants to destroy you.” This distinction stood at the core of Michael Ignatieff’s lecture, in which the current President of the Central European University in Budapest and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada argued that liberal democracies are experiencing a dangerous shift in the nature of political discourse. The forms of communication that dominate the political sphere do not simply reflect political reality – they also constitute it. Thus the shift from a language of adversaries to one of enemies may actually bring about social divisions and threaten the very fabric of liberal democracies.

Liberal democracy is not perfect, but it does offer a powerful solution to the fundamental problem of preventing violence from entering the political sphere. It does this by means of “a written and an unwritten constitution.” We are all familiar with the essential features of the former, but it is the latter which dictates that political competitors are defined as adversaries rather than as enemies, relying on persuasion, rational argument and the possibility of future alliances.

Some liberal democracies are more resilient than others when it comes to these unwritten rules. Unlike the US or Britain, Germany’s constitution favors coalition building, a feature which leads politicians to regulate their speech and behavior in light of the possibility that their current adversaries will be their future allies. Moreover, Germany’s historical memory serves as a constant reminder of the dangers of a politics of enemies. But this doesn’t mean that Germans are safe from the new form of populism recognizable in many Western democracies. In Germany, too, we face the choice between a reaffirmation of liberal values – that is, of a politics of adversaries – and further decline into a politics of enemies.

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