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Michael Ignatieff: 9/11 and the age of sovereign failure

One of the tasks we ask government to perform is to think the unthinkable.

Before 9/11, we may have allowed ourselves to be cynical about Western governments and their leaders, but we took it for granted that, faced with rising terrorist threats, they were not just hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

It turned out that nobody was.

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The intelligence community saw warning lights flashing, but nobody took preventive action. Then airport security failed. Then the jets failed to scramble. Institutions that were supposed to protect us were asleep. In an instant, we discovered that no one was looking out for us.

The fire crews, the police and the emergency medical service teams who were called to the scene that September morning tried to make up for the failure of institutions with raw courage. The men and women in uniform who climbed upward into the fire displayed that virtue beyond measure or praise. But courage is no substitute for sovereigns that fail.

A sovereign is a state with a monopoly on the means of force. It is the object of ultimate allegiance and the source of law. It is there to protect, to defend and to secure. It is there to think the unthinkable and plan for it.

A sovereign failed that morning.

We have learned to live with that, to accept that there are "black swans" – events so unthinkable that no one can prepare for them. So we accept a new vulnerability. But there is no hiding the childlike disappointment inside us all. Our idea of the sovereign included a child's expectation that it would keep us safe. We have had to grow up.

In the decade since, we have seen nothing that would give us back even an adult's faith in institutions, let alone a child's. There has been a cascade of failure.

They said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There were none. They said they could build a new nation there. They couldn't. They said they could do the same in Afghanistan. They haven't.

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It is always good to be skeptical about what governments tell us. But we are beyond skepticism now, into a deep and enduring cynicism. There will come a day when they are not crying wolf and we will not believe them. Then we will be in trouble. Some trust in government is a condition of democracy and security alike. That trust has been weakened and can't be rebuilt until sovereigns say what they mean, mean what they say and do what they promise.

When Hurricane Katrina bowled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, the U.S. Army and government engineers told the people of New Orleans the levees would hold. They failed. The mayor told the people help was on the way. Bodies lay decomposing in the water for a week. The president told the people they would rebuild. The rebuilding is still not done.

This was sovereign failure. It broke the contract of trust between government and people (and it is no accident that those whose trust was most fundamentally betrayed were poor and black).

Katrina was a second betrayal of expectation, just four years after the first. And a third was on its way.

The economic crisis of 2008 was a failure of markets, but also a failure of sovereign government. At the height of the financial exuberance, when the warning lights began to flash, government regulators told the American people there was no mortgage bubble.

Then they said the damage from the toxic financial instruments was contained. Then they said a bank failure was unthinkable. Then Lehman Brothers went down. The authorities told us it was another black swan.

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Politicians and prosecutors promised there would be consequences. There have been no consequences. No one went to jail, except the most egregious fraudsters, and none of the regulators were held accountable. This was sovereign failure compounded, because no one carried the can.

This failure, unlike the first two, was not confined to America. It was a general failure of regulation in most Western states. Some governments – Canada, for example – did not fail in their sovereign duties. The Conservatives had preached their fair share of free-market nonsense in opposition, but, on banking regulation at least, hewed to a liberal consensus when in power. Other governments let ideology, combined with carelessness, get the better of them.

The fourth sovereign failure was environmental. When the wellhead burst in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the company told Americans that the spill was under control. It wasn't. The regulators said they had done the inspections. They hadn't. They had colluded with the industry they were supposed to be regulating. They signed off on the bad welds. They took the industry's word. Then they said the damage from the spilling oil wasn't too bad. It was bad enough.

Here was a failure to regulate, to protect and to prevent – basic responsibilities of any government. Is there any real reason to believe government will do a better job, from here on, regulating Arctic and offshore drilling?

This summer, politicians in Washington came within an ace of defaulting on the national debt – on a responsibility so fundamental to the role of a government that it is inscribed in the U.S. Constitution as the 14th Amendment. America (and therefore the world) came within a day or two of a fifth sovereign failure.

The word "sovereign" is now paired with "debt" in the global lexicon. Sovereign default now hangs over the world's economy like a spectre. And sovereigns now understand, almost too late, that if they don't hang together, they will hang separately.

When you line these failures up in a row, one following the other, it is no surprise that people have lost faith in government everywhere, but especially in the United States. Yet what the story should tell us is how important sovereigns actually are.

While there are a lot of things a government might do, there are a few things that only a government can do: protect the people, rescue them when they are in danger, regulate against catastrophic risk and safeguard the full faith and credit of their currency.

Sovereigns matter. And rebuilding their legitimacy, their capacity and their competence is the political task that matters most.

Competent doesn't mean bigger. It may even mean smaller, nimbler, more digital, less bureaucratic and more responsive in the face of the ceaseless ingenuity of greed. But whatever form sovereign government takes in the future, it has to mean government that prepares for the worst and regulates to protect the public from greed, violence and environmental ruin.

Rebuilding sovereign competence and capacity is also the key to restoring confidence in the global economy. Investors and the general public need to know someone is policing markets, keeping toxic products out of the global economic system and protecting the savings of the vulnerable.

Sovereign government means national government. For all the loose talk about global governance and the waning of the nation-state, only national governments have the democratic support and therefore the legitimacy to make regulations stick, punish wrongdoers and create the consensus for sacrifice where sacrifice is needed.

Organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank have a job to do, co-ordinating the work of sovereigns, but they can't do it unless sovereigns do theirs.

And yet a lot of people seem to be drawing another lesson entirely. Since we've survived it all, since the world hasn't come to an end, they ask, who needs government at all? Who needs a competent, capable sovereign? Who cares about a sovereign default?

Thus you have a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States telling voters that his objective is to make Washington "irrelevant" in the lives of Americans. He is saying what a lot of Americans want to hear.

This is the politics you get when a country has lived through a decade of sovereign failure (and two decades of ideological fantasy before that).

Instead of learning, as catastrophe sometimes teaches, that we are all in this together, many of us (and Americans in particular) seem to have learned that we are each on our own.

The response of governments has become part of the problem. Environmental regulation is sacrificed on the altar of jobs. Government watchdogs are put down in obedience to the ideology of deregulation. As government weakens in these dimensions, it becomes more coercive in others.

To turn back terror, our institutions have become more ruthless and more vigilant, yet we do not trust them more. A secret war on terror is waged, without foreseeable end, in our name, beyond our ken and beyond our control.

America defends its democracy now with drone strikes and targeted assassinations, with computerized surveillance of the incoming and outgoing chatter on phones and servers. Governments now pay thousands of secret operators to detect warning signals amid the noise.

But a decade into this secret war, no one really knows what price democracy pays, in freedom and self-respect, for the way it defends itself now.

If terror challenges democracy, the answer is more democracy, not less; more accountability and openness, not less. The question is whether the secret power we have allowed to spring up in our name is under any kind of democratic control. Do our elected representatives keep our secret agencies under sufficient scrutiny? Does the press know what is being done in our name?

We have paid for sovereign failure with secret government. Most people accept this, because our enemies have not prevailed. The mastermind is dead, his remains scattered at sea. His followers are in hiding and know they will be pursued to the ends of the earth.

But they created the apocalyptic standard, and the risk now is not just al-Qaeda but any group with the desire and capacity to emulate it.

The price of freedom is vigilance, but we also know that eternal vigilance is impossible. Some day, somehow, someone will get through. Sovereigns will do their best, but, against someone in search of apocalyptic martyrdom, all bets are off.

We can live with this knowledge, because we prefer it to the innocence that blinded us a decade ago. We cannot live without faith in others, so we draw inspiration from the courage shown by rescuers and survivors. But we cannot take consolation from the decade we have lived since.

In fact, though, we are not in need of consolation. We are in need of good politics, of democratic systems that are more than reality-TV shows driven by attack ads, and of democratic debate that allows the people to talk about what actually matters and then to elect politicians who will do what must be done.

We are not short of good ideas about what to do. We are not short of dedicated public servants. Most people, apart from those in the grip of ideological fantasy, know that we need competent sovereigns.

But truth be told, a decade later, sovereigns are failing us still. And until they stop failing us, we will not be safe, and our prosperity will not be secure.

Michael Ignatieff is a Senior Resident at Massey College, University of Toronto.

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