Whenever I travel outside of the , I inevitably end up in conversations about ’s president. Everyone I encountered in my travels this year knew about George Bush, but they really wanted to talk about Barack Obama. So, here is a pop quiz. Can you name the leaders of two of the nations I visited in 2008, or ?
Too tough? OK. We will return to that question later. Let’s try a little bit closer to home. Who is the Prime Minister of Canada? If you correctly identified Stephen Harper – well done. Now, for the bonus round. Who has emerged as the leader of ’s Liberal Party and quite likely the country’s next prime minister? Give up? It’s a tough one, I know. Extra points if you know it’s a writer and academician named Michael Ignatieff.
I would have paid little attention to recent press reports about Michael Ignatieff’s rise to power in Canada had I not been fortune enough to be one of his students at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Six years ago, Mr. Ignatieff was teaching a class called Human Rights and International Politics. His course was “designed to introduce students to the history of the momentous change (human rights) in the moral framework governing international relations.” Although no prerequisites were required, Mr. Ignatieff suggested some study of history or moral philosophy would be helpful for the class.
How intriguing, I thought. At a time when many leaders seemed to have little sense of history, and even less of a moral compass to guide them, here was a professor placing human rights within a historical and moral framework, while balancing that with the very real understanding of the public policy dilemmas that can come from that.
Michael Ignatieff led the class through discussions on issues like the death penalty, reproductive rights, female genital mutilation, and the social responsibility of corporations producing oil, diamonds and chocolate. He positioned HIV/AIDS, not just as a public health problem, but as a security risk and, in fact, a basic human rights issue.
Although I didn’t always agree with my professor, I was impressed by Mr. Ignatieff’s deep intellect, his broad knowledge, his thoughtful persona, respectful style, and his endless curiosity. More than that, it was Michael Ignatieff’s commitment to the moral imperatives that must accompany many policy decisions that left me wishing he would leave academic life for public office. I wished he were American so he could hold office in this country.
Michael Ignatieff surely knows the names of the leaders I mentioned in my opening pop quiz. He knows Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France (not as Carla Bruni’s husband). He may not know that Kgaleme Molanthe is the acting President of South Africa, but he would know that Molanthe is the bridge between former President Thabo Mbeki and the presumptive president, Jacob Zuma. But even if Mr. Ignatieff only knows that Barack Obama is the president-elect of the , it wouldn’t really matter to me. What matters is that our neighbor to the north has an opportunity to chose, as their leader for the country, an intelligent man with a moral compass.
The world needs more leaders like Michael Ignatieff. His is a name worth remembering.