Obama’s Just a Peaceful Guy

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As President Obama tells his supporters in an email:

This morning, Michelle and I awoke to some surprising and humbling news. At 6 a.m., we received word that I’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009.

That sentence pretty much encapsulates the morning every American experienced. I woke up at around 7 a.m. to news that Obama had received the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and my honest reaction was: “Really? Is this some kind of joke?”

My second reaction was: “Must suck to be Dubya this morning.”

I’m a fervent supporter of President Obama, but I’m as surprised as anyone that he was this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s only now emerged out of his second 100 days in office, and it’s difficult to list what tangible accomplishments have occured in the first year of his presidency that are singularly deserving of the (arguably) most prestigious award in the world. Much to the disappointment of many progressives, military violence in Iraq and Afghanistan rages on, healthcare reform is still mired in political bickering, and Guantanamo remains open. 

Today, Obama’s political opposition have released hasty, biting criticism of the honour bestowed upon President Obama. RNC Chairman Michael Steele said:

The real question Americans are asking is, “What has President Obama actually accomplished?” It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights. One thing is certain — President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.

But, the Nobel Peace Prize hasn’t ever really been about concrete achievements — after all, the road towards peace is slow and difficult. The mission of the Nobel Peace Prize, as laid out by Alfred Nobel in his will, is to acknowledge “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”, all for the “greatest benefit of mankind”. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has the unenviable task of determining who, amongst hundreds of nominees, fits this rather vague description — and if all of these nominees were under consideration for having achieved concrete successes in their lives’ struggles, there wouldn’t be much of a long-term need for a Nobel Peace Prize. And after all, that is the point of the Nobel Peace Prize: it is a recognition that achieving peace has never been easy, and it is a reward for those who commit their lives to the struggle for peace.

This truth is reflected in the Nobel Peace Prize’s recent laureates. Many of the last century’s award recipients were honoured for their commitment to improving international relations and promoting the ideals of peace, rather than for a specific action or accomplishment.  Two years ago, former Vice President Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts towards raising awareness regarding climate change and bringing together international leaders of disparate ideologies to the table to discuss how to save the world’s failing atmosphere. Yet, the United States — one of the world’s leading polluters — has yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and many of the Protocol’s participating nations have yet to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions despite their committment to meet a goal reduction by 2012. Gore succeeded in initiating discussions about climate change (essentially making environmentalism “cool” again), but there has been little tangible success in reducing the world’s pollution.

When compared to the list of prior Nobel laureates, Obama’s accomplishments are quite impressive. Following 9/11, when both the Democratic and Republican leadership were swept up by President George W. Bush’s drumbeats of war, Obama made the case for peace. During the 2008 campaign season, while Republicans and Democrats alike criticized Obama, then a first-term senator, for his “naive” view on international relations, Obama consistently defended diplomacy over military posturing. Since taking office, Obama has actively sought to break down anti-American sentiment around the world by traveling to foreign nations and improving relations with international leaders. Obama’s commitment towards diplomacy is no better represented than in his recent speech before the United Nations General Assembly. Emphasizing the importance of forging diplomatic ties and finding commonalities, not differences, between disparate nations, Obama said:

“Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared.

“The religious convictions that we hold in our hearts can forge new bonds among people, or tear us apart. The technology we harness can light the path to peace, or forever darken it. The energy we use can sustain our planet, or destroy it. What happens to the hope of a single child anywhere – can enrich our world, or impoverish it.

“In this hall, we come from many places, but we share a common future. No longer do we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we must do together. I have carried this message from London to Ankara; from Port of Spain to Moscow; from Accra to Cairo; and it’s what I will speak about today. Because the time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.

Beyond that, President Obama has united not just Americans, but an entire world, towards a hopeful vision of the future. And while that might seem like mushy stuff to cynical Republicans (and a few Democrats), I don’t think the power of that unity really can be denied; as Obama said, I do think that Obama’s first four years really will be a time of incredible change not just for America, but for the  international community.

Few world leaders have been so openly and so consistently dedicated to the mission of peace, and even fewer of those leaders have been sitting (or former) presidents of the United States. Consider this: the last president of the United States instinctively labelled international nations “evil” (and seemed confused as to why this might sour diplomatic talks) and always seemed  to enjoy a good saber-rattling with his morning Wheaties.

Bottom line, Michael Steele’s criticism of Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize seem in-keeping with the Right’s general xenophobia and American nativism. The Nobel Peace Prize is not about goings-on in American politics; it is about recognizing an international leader who has improved diplomatic relations globally for the betterment of all mankind. American unemployment rates, while a clear priority for the Obama Administration, is just not within the scope of the Nobel Peace Prize. Steele’s reference to these domestic issues only underscore the problem with the Republican Party’s version of international relations: a failure to recognize that the United States is only one nation in an increasingly globalized world. Yes, we’re a pretty important nation, but we’ve been through eight years of pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist (except when they’re “evil”!) and look where that has gotten us. Instead, we must understand that the United States isone of the most powerful and most influential nations in the world, and (to quote a comic book) with great power comes great responsibility. The president of the United States is not just this nation’s leader, he (or she) is a world leader. Fervent, fundamentalist Right-wing insularism denies this reality, and, too often, it leads to poisoning of international relations. 

That being said, I, too, wish there were more concrete accomplishments in Obama’s first year in office (although, I’m inclined to blame House Republicans, not Obama, for their feet-dragging). I take today’s announcement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee as inspiration and motivation for elected leaders and grassroots activists to re-double our efforts towards improving our communities, whether local, national, or international. We can’t be drawn back into childish bickering and name-calling (such as the DNC’s comparison today between Republicans and terrorists for both criticizing Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize). We need to recognize today’s honour as the inspiration that it is.

In his email to supporters, Obama writes:

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 — men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.

But I also know that throughout history the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.

That is why I’ve said that I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations and all peoples to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. These challenges won’t all be met during my presidency, or even my lifetime. But I know these challenges can be met so long as it’s recognized that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone.

This award — and the call to action that comes with it — does not belong simply to me or my administration; it belongs to all people around the world who have fought for justice and for peace. And most of all, it belongs to you, the men and women of America, who have dared to hope and have worked so hard to make our world a little better.

I genuinely hope that President Obama and the members of his administration will be ready to answer this call to action. I hope that they will recognize this international affirmation of their commitment towards diplomacy, and they will be able to translate this honour into real, and tangible, gains in the path towards peace. There’s a long way still to go on this road, but at least, today, we finally began to understand that we’re headed in the right direction.

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