The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Too Nobel For Our Own Good

Our Reaction to Obama’s Peace Prize May Be Exactly Why He Got It

“I think part of their decision-making was expectations. And I'm sure the President understands that he now has even more to live up to. But as Americans, we're proud when our President receives an award of that prestigious category.”

That was Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona commenting on President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. Nobel laureates are traditionally complimented in glowing terms but McCain was most definitely taking the high road. As with former Vice-President Al Gore’s 2007 Peace Prize, reaction to Obama’s win was definitely mixed. In this case, however, the problem was not what the recipient was promoting but rather who he was.

Sheer unexpectedness contributed in part to the reaction. It was known that Obama had been nominated but nobody viewed him as a contender, let alone a favorite.

Second, the Nobel Committee, which has played loose and fast with the original definition for the Peace Prize, made its most radical departure ever by giving the award to Obama, in McCain’s words, for expectations rather than accomplishments.

“It looks less like an objective award than it does a political endorsement,” said William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at Spelman College in Atlanta. One member of the Nobel Committee was not in the least shy confirming that very point. Aagot Valle told the Associated Press she hoped the selection would be viewed as “support and a commitment for Obama.”

Obama himself understood this only too well. He seemed both genuinely surprised and deliberately understated in his first remarks on the subject.

“I do not view [this] as a recognition of my own accomplishments but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations. To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize . . . But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women and all Americans want to build . . . And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the Twenty-First Century.”

Some reactions to Obama’s win can be dismissed as beyond the fringe. One is that of the conspiracy theorists, with the usual charge that Obama is actually anti-America and the Nobel Prize is a reward for him weakening America. Republican Representative Gresham Barrett of South Carolina, a gubernatorial candidate in that state, was the most vocal to this end.

“I'm not sure what the international community loved best; his waffling on Afghanistan, pulling defense missiles out of Eastern Europe, turning his back on freedom fighters in Honduras, coddling Castro, siding with Palestinians against Israel, or almost getting tough on Iran.”

The first problem here is that conspiracies tend to be secretive things and prestigious public awards are incongruous with secrecy. The second problem is that the nations and organizations who supposedly hate America the most – Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Pakistan, the Taliban – are not the most excited but the most outraged over this award.

Then there are reactions that range from the off-the-cuff opinion of Itya Silverio of Brooklyn – "My first opinion is that he got it because he's black" – to the more formal estimation of Erick Erickson, writing on the conservative website – “I did not realize the Nobel Peace Prize had an affirmative action quota.”

Of course, since it is now the rule by so many to dismiss anyone who accuses racism against Obama as “silly,” I will simply let these two examples of silliness stand for themselves.

Although skeptics exist everywhere, a basic divide in reaction toward Obama’s Nobel was quickly apparent. International reaction was largely positive and supportive. Within the United States, however, the prevalent response is nicely encapsulated by Robert Schultz, a retired civil servant and Vietnam veteran, who, when told of Obama’s win, asked incredulously, “For doing what?”

The more I think about this basic duality, the more I believe that a reaction of this type on the part of America may be exactly what drove the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to single out Obama. We are a bottom-line, “show me the money,” concrete logic culture. When we see a problem, our first and often only thought is to (unilaterally) devise a solution and then (unilaterally) impose it. Oh, and it better be a complete and permanent solution or we subsequently judge it as just another failure. When accepting awards, we tend to be a bit too noble – or, I should say, too Nobel – for our own good.

Europeans, Asians, and Middle Easterners tend to see history as a slow-moving process. Americans do not really relate to processes. We prefer a finite set of instructions that produce something tangible, like a birdhouse or coffee table, at the end. The world often sees dialogue as progress in and of itself. Americans see it as a lot of empty talk with no substance or accomplishments. The fact that these charges have long been leveled at Obama too is no surprise.

I suspect the Nobel Committee may be taken quite literally at its word as to why it felt it important to single out Obama.

“. . . for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples . . created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts . . . The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

Woodrow Wilson, the last sitting U.S. President to receive the Peace Prize “when it still meant something,” was singled out for creating the League of Nations. Yet even at the time of his award, Wilson had utterly failed at two key tasks.

First, he failed to convince the leaders of England and France to treat the conquered Germans with reasonable mercy. Instead, the harsh treaty imposed led to such miserable conditions and chaos as to facilitate the rise of Nazi fanaticism and require another “War to End All Wars.” Wilson also failed to convince an isolationist Republican Senate back home to join the League of Nations. America’s absence caused that body to have no authority to check rising aggression across the globe over the coming decades.

Yet, despite his failings, Wilson was still deserving of the award. He became the father of internationalism and many of his ideas were finally embraced, both abroad and in this country, at the end of the Second World War. In many ways, Wilson was rewarded far more for unrealized vision than any actual accomplishments.

It is true that Wilson’s award came at the end of his Presidency while Obama’s comes at the very start. Yet Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland answers, “Some people say, and I understand it, isn’t it premature? Too early? Well, I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond — all of us.”

It is the same pragmatic viewpoint that caused FDR to reach back to the Biblical book of Proverbs in his first inaugural address to observe, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Haag Sherman, Director of the investment firm Salient Partners, admits Obama’s selection politicizes the Peace Prize. In spite of this, he also notes, “It illustrates that the U.S. is still the prevalent power in the world and that the world really is seeking engagement with the United States.”

That we, as a nation, meet this yearning from the rest of the world by responding, “But we haven’t done anything for you to congratulate us about,” is exactly what Obama’s award is meant to tell not only him but all of us as well. The world can relate to us, and we to them, in ways other than as feared unilateral superpower or forgotten, fallen joke.

We are being reminded there is real, practical, tangible power in diplomacy, power in mulitlateralism, power in ideas, in words, in the courage to change, in hope. Our reaction to their choice makes it apparent it is a message we very much need.

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