Friday, October 9, 2009

President, Nobel Laureate, and All-Around Cool Dude

So, first off, I suppose a congratulations is in order to President Obama.

Of course there will be critics - there always are - but I particularly love a day when a person lambasting the award as proof that "these prizes are political, not governed by the principles of credibility, values and morals" could either be a blogger at The Corner or Khaled Al-Batsh, the leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. (It's the latter, in case you were wondering.)

There is a case to be made that this is "premature" - after all, the president has been in office less than nine months, and to put it gently, the world's various problems aren't exactly solved. But I think the point the Nobel Committee was trying to make was that, in a short amount of time, Obama has fundamentally and radically reoriented the American stance toward the world, restoring it to its traditional stance of cooperative leadership. He has devoted significant time, resources, and political capital early on in his presidency to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he has ended torture and other stains on America's human rights record; he has articulated a vision of nuclear disarmament and worked to set the world on that course; he has reached out to the Islamic world in a spirit of respect and peace; and he has subtly but effectively undermined an aggressive Iranian regime without firing a single shot. And he did much of this with the blessing and assistance of the international community, working within traditional international institutions and respecting international norms. Certainly some of the world's embrace of Obama is based on relief at the end of the Bush era - to outsiders, what we call "unilateralism" looks more like a middle finger - but to suggest that this man is not uniquely responsible for major advances in the cause of world peace is unfair and shortsighted.

Lots of people will charge - in fact, I've seen it already - that all he has done is "give a speech or two." "Give a speech, win the Nobel Peace Prize! If I had only known it was that easy!"

This criticism, of course, reflects a staggering amount of ignorance about the significant day-to-day work that presidents and governments do. There is no doubt that Obama and his team have put long hours and no small amount of elbow grease into the nuts and bolts of these issues. Governing is a slow and difficult process.

But more to the point, this criticism misses the obvious reality that public gestures are important. That's how you motivate regular people and pressure governments, and it's how world leaders set the course of international affairs. Barack Obama could have set the course, as his predecessor did, towards unilateralism and unnecessary wars. He could have ignored the issue of nuclear disarmament, waited until the last minute to get serious about Israel/Palestine, denied the reality of global warming and the catastrophic effects it could have on the world, refused to engage in diplomacy with America's enemies, defied international law and human rights by torturing prisoners, and regarded other world leaders as obstacles rather than partners in the pursuit of global peace. That kind of behavior certainly wouldn't have been without precedent.

But he took a different course. He dove right into some of the thorniest problems in the world, all of which demand attention and priority - and none of which can wait. And if we have inched closer to a solution to any of those outrages against peace, it is because of the aspirations and work of this specific person. The world is a very different place today because Barack Obama is President of the United States. I think that's worth recognizing.

1 comment:

Lukas said...

Nathan, my only issue with his winning the Nobel is that it was not for the work he's done over the past nine months. The nominations were due Feb. 1. Which means that the award was based on (or maybe wasn't, but should have been) what he did in the years before that; namely, inspiring a nation and getting elected President. Which is all really great, and honestly, its a private organization that can award the prize to whomever they want (they gave it to Kissinger, for chrissakes), but it still makes me wonder whether it was simply a message that the committee is sending to the rest of the world, and to America. "This guy is good, we like him, he's going to do great things." But to say that it's based on what he's accomplished already seems to be a pretty weak argument--not in that what he's done already isn't good, but simply in that what he has yet to do is surely going to trump his first nine months in office.