14 October 2009

Politicians and peace

Norwegian parliament on left,
Royal Palace at end of street.
I was as startled as anyone by the announcement that the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave this year's Peace Prize to Barack Obama. But there is a political logic behind the choice. We can't say exactly what was on the Committee's mind, of course, but I can make some unsentimental guesses.

I'm as proud of my background as any typical Norwegian descendant or immigrant. As a child, I always looked forward to hearing any little bit of news of Norway that would somehow come through the American media transom. It didn't happen very often! Occasionally, there would be a paragraph or two about the latest election, or perhaps a Soviet submarine was spotted in a fjord. Every four years, the Winter Olympics would provide some glimpses of the Norwegian flag. Occasionally, May 17 celebrations in New York or Chicago would be in the news. But once a year, reliably, we would hear about the latest Nobel Peace Prize announcement.

There's an urban legend about why Alfred Nobel chose the Norwegians to administer the Peace Prize, instead of leaving it in Swedish hands along with the other Nobel prizes: he felt that the Norwegians were the more peaceful nation. This was in the context of the forced union between Norway and Sweden, in which Sweden was the senior partner in size and power. Nobel's will was probably written about 1895, and the union between Norway and Sweden was not ended until 1905.

(The Nobel Peace Prize site has several credible theories about Nobel's reason for choosing Norway, but nobody knows the reason for sure.)

The peaceful Norwegians theory might be a self-serving myth, and it might also have shaped some of the romance around the prize, especially for me during my childhood idealism. However, right from the start, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has not been a body of idealistic philosophers or social scientists (although the scholars of the Nobel Institute participate as advisors and researchers in the selection process). Alfred Nobel asked a political body, the Norwegian national legislature, to form the committee, and its members have been politicians right from the start. Not surprisingly, therefore, the awarding of the prize has often been a political expression.

This explains some of the more controversial awards--particularly those given to national leaders and politicians not exactly known as doves. The Nobel mandate says prizes should go to those who "... during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." Nobel goes on to describe the other prizes, and then allocates "... one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." The mandate is rather vague, except in one aspect--the time horizon is specifically "during the preceding year." This specification was no doubt part of the calculations in the case of Barack Obama. Among the nominations received by the February 2009 deadline, the Committee is proposing that Obama made the single biggest political impact worldwide on behalf of peace.

It is likely that the Norwegian politicians would like the 2009 Peace Prize to serve as an emotional investment for Obama and his political allies to keep advancing the positions that proved decisive in his selection--in the Committee's own words:
The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has as President 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 vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world's leading spokesman. The Committee endorses Obama's appeal that "Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."
It's not unreasonable to take this pronouncement at face value and understand that the diverse politicians who signed it really do hope that these trends continue.

However, of course, there is no guarantee. Obama is highly unlikely to depart from the traditional path of American presidents faced by military challenges in distant places, even when those challenges have been at least partly caused by the USA itself. His current test appears to be choosing a path "forward" in Afghanistan from a range of choices, all of which presuppose that the USA will kill and destroy anyone it chooses on either side of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border while seeking to placate ambivalent and compromised governments, "neutral" civilians, and the relatives of innocent victims. The most desperately needed measures--a combination of assertive confrontation with destructive ideologies, combined with old-fashioned police work for those who are truly terrorists--are not apparently on the table.

I hate to sound uncharacteristically pessimistic, but maybe the only common thread we'll get between Obama, the Peace Prize, and Afghanistan is a greater inclination on the USA's part to seek a regional solution--although the recent many-strings-attached allocation for Pakistan is not a heartening example.

Some conservative commentators have greeted Obama's prize with snide remarks about complacent left-leaning Europeans and pacifist NGOs. Such remarks might reveal a lack of understanding of the globalizing dynamics operating behind the curtains of the nation-state system--and the long-term vulnerabilities we Americans will suffer from as our national delusions about self-sufficiency move farther and farther away from reality. (Examples: oil imports and diminishing supplies; U.S. debt in the global financial markets; new centers of research and intellectual capital; the decline of U.S. education.)

But one thing these commentators do get right--the hypocrisy behind some anti-American attitudes. The USA's armed-to-the-teeth unilateralism has allowed other countries to avoid taking responsibility for the tensions and tyrants within their own regions. Such countries can feel free to criticize the USA while secretly hoping we keep them safe anyway, or else hoping that we keep irritating the rest of the world so that they can benefit from an endless supply of anti-Americanism to build new reactionary alliances and deflate domestic critics. But whether these sentiments arise from our own mistakes or the cynical calculations of others, the fact that not everyone likes us is no excuse for obnoxious and vindictive attitudes on our part. Adults confront real problems and seek real solutions. It appears that Obama is doing his best to act as an adult--a refreshing change!

But it is not enough. During the past year, Obama might indeed have been the single most effective global activist on behalf of fraternity among nations. But the Pentagon is looking well beyond Obama's one or two terms--it foresees a globe where U.S. troops, ships, and drones are on permanent hair-triggers. No doubt there are self-proclaimed enemies with a similar long-term view. Without a very different vision of how we human beings organize for safety and mutual support, how we define and engage "enemies," and how we confront evil, Obama's Nobel Peace Prize is likely to be viewed in years to come as poignantly ironic.

We followers of the Prince of Peace do not have an official Peace Prize to announce every year. If we did, what would the criteria be?

In any case, our reaction to Obama's award should be something other than a choice between cheering and sneering. The human willingness to seek the death of others, and to organize for this purpose, is still at heart a spiritual matter, a standing challenge to all pacifists and evangelists alike.* Politicians have a role to play in allocating resources justly, responding to conflict, and so on. When they do a good job or express a worthy vision, we really ought to cheer them on--without neglecting the deeper issue: the unredeemed human temptation to glorify our own interests and objectify each other.
* Ideally, there's a major overlap!

Elektrostal moment: I was helping Gennadi with a high-school-level English class one evening last week. Students were gathering up courage to answer a question in English, and during this pause, Gennadi's wife Natasha, a French instructor, walked in. Looking around, she observed, "What, a language class and nobody's speaking?" Gennadi replied, "We've reached a higher stage of development--we no longer need words."

PhotobucketThomas Jefferson joins George Will (see last week) on the streets of Moscow. This poster near metro station Park Kultury, for last Sunday's city council elections, is a translation of Jefferson's words, "In a government bottomed on the will of all, the... liberty of every individual citizen becomes interesting to all." (The quotation as listed on democracy.ru; as listed on etext.virginia.edu.)

Below the quotation, the poster says, "Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of the USA, author of the Declaration of Independence." And, below, "Let's all vote in the Moscow City Council elections."

I'll let others deal with the actual election results.

Righteous links:

The Global Conversation: "In October 2010, the Lausanne Movement will convene another congress, this time in Cape Town, South Africa. The majority of participants will be from the Majority World, where evangelicalism is now thriving dramatically. For the next year, Christianity Today, in partnership with the Lausanne Movement and fellow Christian publications around the world, will address some of the principal issues that confront the contemporary church as we seek to proclaim and demonstrate the gospel in all its historic depth and breadth. We are calling these articles the Global Conversation." (Additional articles by Samuel Escobar, Emily Choge, and Christopher Heuertz.)

Also from Christianity Today: "Evangelicals endorse immigration reform."

Tomgram: "Are we the Martians of the 21st century?"

"Controlling the words" of Biblical translation ... "Just ask Phoebe."

Think theological discussions are boring? Think again.

Saturday, October 17, at Scandinavia House, New York City: Find out about crime writing in a country where more people are murdered in fictional writing than in real life.

Guy Forsyth: "Keep your Lamp Trimmed and Burning."

1 comment:

Bill Samuel said...

We would should cheer politicians on when they present a good vision, and actually strive to implement it. But Obama has always been a strong militarist. He has increased the number of U.S. troops in foreign wars of aggression, increased the size of the military budget, increased the total size of the armed forces, and is pushing for 7 new American military bases in Columbia. All this is fully consistent with what he advocated in his campaign.

Giving him the Peace Prize is a slap the face to all who actually work for peace, increasing numbers of whom are being physically assaulted and jailed for opposing Obama's war policies.