Friday, October 9, 2009

Why Barack Obama Deserves The Nobel Peace Prize

When you look over the list of Nobel Peace Prize winners, you can mostly divide them into three categories.

First, there are those whose situation in the world could've led them to live ordinary lives under unremarkable circumstances, but found ways to accomplish great things for the betterment of humanity. In this category you have agricultural pioneer Norman Borlaug, father of microlending Mohammed Yunus, the humanitarian heroes of Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International, and Jody Williams of the International Campaign To Ban Land Mines.

Second, there are the peacemakers, who are often honored in pairs, since that's how peace is often made. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat fit into this category for making peace between Israel and Egypt, as do John Hume and David Trimble for reconciling Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk for working towards a post-apartheid South Africa.

Third, there are those who actively participate in politics to oppose regimes destructive of human welfare. Here you have Aung San Suu Kyi who continues to fight against the brutal military dictatorship in Burma, Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, Polish activist and trade unionist Lech Walesa, and anti-apartheid activist Bishop Desmond Tutu.

It's far too early in Barack Obama's presidency to see if he'll deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for the first or second reason. In nine months he hasn't had time to achieve any grand feats or make peace between long-standing enemies. The best way to see him, I think, is as a member of the third category.

America had, for a long time, been the great power that citizens of the world could best rely on to be on the right side of human rights issues. Our record was very far from perfect, and we sometimes fought brutal and foolish wars or supported horrific regimes that did horrific things. But looking at the other nations and empires in the world that have achieved the highest levels of global dominance -- most recently, the USSR, the European colonial powers, and the Axis governments -- America looks pretty good. It may strike you that these are, on the whole, horrific regimes, and being the best among such a lot is no great achievement. There may be some deep indictment of human nature in the fact that great power correlates so well with great viciousness. But as superpowers go, those are your choices. In Singapore, the general opinion I've heard attributed to policymakers is that if somebody else is going to be the big power in the neighborhood, it's better that it be America than China. Now, that's not high praise. But it's a kind of praise that really matters, both as a moral evaluation of America qua hegemon and as a sign that we're a force for good in the world.

The Iraq War, the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and Republican conduct of foreign policy showed the world an America very different from the America they knew. The Bush Administration took many hundreds of billions of dollars that could have been spent on human betterment, and squandered it on a destructive and ultimately pointless war that killed thousands of our citizens and tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The signs that had for so long distinguished us from our enemies -- our humane and dignified treatment of prisoners, even those who had killed Americans -- began to vanish. On issues essential to the well-being of humankind, like nuclear nonproliferation and climate change, progress either ceased or was actively reversed. And at the end of Bush's time as President, financial problems originating within our economy engulfed the world.

The idea that the Bush Administration marked the new direction America in the 21st century, a direction that future Administrations would continue to pursue, rightly struck the citizens of other nations with horror. It matters immensely that the tremendous economic and military power of the United States continue to operate at least as well, on the global scene, as it has over the past decades. I'm not really sure how to morally evaluate a superpower like America as good or bad -- there's an element of context-sensitivity to moral evaluation that I don't know how to apply in the case of gigantic political bodies that have few peers and do tremendous world-changing things. But I know very clearly what it would mean for a superpower to get worse, and to get even worse than that. People of the world were struck by the prospect of America turning into something much worse than it had been before, with terrible consequences for humanity, and they were rightly horrified by that.

Barack Obama hasn't faced the personal brutality that many of the heroes in the third category of Nobel Prize winners have. Nobody threw him in prison, tortured him, or assassinated his staffers. America's democratic traditions kept us from falling into the sort of misrule that typifies, say, the Burmese military dictatorship which Aung San Suu Kyi fights against. But while the SLORC regime in Burma is terrible for the Burmese, the global impact of America being ruled by mad people is far worse than that of Burma being ruled by mad people. The degree of one's impact is in some sense a criterion for the Nobel Prize, and that's what Obama brings to the table over and above so many other candidates. However well or badly he does in fixing the chaos that Bush left behind, the world is happy enough that he won't go around actively creating more chaos as Bush did.

The argument for giving Obama a Nobel Prize is that America is important enough and Republicans are bad enough. As much as the first part will flatter the sensibilities of our political culture, the second will seem totally beyond the pale. Well, so much the worse for our political culture. It's still wide open whether the Obama Administration will make the right decisions on Afghanistan, the Middle East, China policy, and any number of domestic issues. Many of my fellow Democrats will certainly be disappointed by the Obama Administration on any number of issues. But the sheer misrule of the Republican Party was so great that Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize just for his role in bringing it to an end. This will strike many in the elite center of American opinion as a partisan conclusion. If they're not willing to hear it from American Democrats, I hope they're willing to hear it from the rest of the world.

People all around the world see the difference between an America led by Obama, Biden, and the Democrats, and an America led by Bush, Cheney, and the Republicans. You can take this award as one clear and forceful expression of their preferences. I hope Obama does well enough as President to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the first and second categories of winners -- the benefactors and the peacemakers. But he already deserves it for taking executive power out of the hands of a party that was a tremendous enemy of human progress and betterment, through its control of the mightiest nation in the world. The forces in charge of the Republican Party are destructive enough that you can deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting them and winning.


corvus said...

Really, really well-said, Neil.

Man, doesn't this just seem surreal? Never would have expected this. In his first year? That's like, winning MVP as a rookie, or something. Except AS PRESIDENT.

Everett said...

I'm sorry Neil, but I must strongly disagree with your conclusion here. Perhaps I am misunderstanding your argument, but it seems to boil down to the President deserving the NPP simply for being a Democrat and getting elected. To compare President Obama's electoral struggle to the Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy's fight for justice in Burma simultaneously trivializes the plight of the Burmese people and aggrandizes the results of a freely held, democratic election.

Certainly, the Bush administration is guilty of a pantheon of shady deals, countless questionable foreign relations tactics and a shameful abuse of civil rights both nationally and around the world. Almost certainly anyone, whether it be Barack Obama, Ralph Nader, John McCain or John Kerry would have made great strides to distance themselves from the Bush administration once elected. By your logic, almost anyone elected, and certainly any Democrat elected in 2008 would merit a Nobel Peace Prize.

I just don't believe that the promises of change, policy reversal and a return to America's role as a leader in ethical governance carries the same gravity as actually accomplishing those lofty goals. President Obama has not closed Guantanamo Bay, he has not withdrawn our soldiers from Iraq, he has not only not suspended the Patriot Act, but validated its existence by signing it again shortly after taking office.

Working towards lofty goals is admirable, but accomplishing those goals is worthy of praise and recognition. Unlike Aung San Suu Kyi, President Obama has met few of the benchmarks that he set for himself.

Neil Sinhababu said...

it seems to boil down to the President deserving the NPP simply for being a Democrat and getting elected

Thanks for commenting, Everett, and that's a fair characterization of what I'm saying. And the further conclusion that you draw -- that a generic Democrat who won the presidency would deserve the prize -- is one I accept. (I mean, I can't really argue for them over some awesome human rights activist out there who I've never heard of. Many people can in some sense be deserving of a prize that can go to only one.)

This is as much an anti-Prize for the Republican Party as it is a Nobel for Obama. And I think the timing was arranged for fullest anti-Prize effect. This is generally how things go in the third category -- giving a prize to Aung San Suu Kyi is also intended as something of an anti-prize to the Burmese junta.

I agree that we don't know yet whether Obama will succeed in cleaning up the disasters that the Bush Administration left behind, and that he'll be way more deserving if he actually does. But when people ruling the mightiest country in the world have played such a role in actively generating disasters, it becomes a pretty big goal just to remove them from power so they won't make any more disasters. That goal, at least, has been accomplished. It's probably the biggest thing that happened in the world last year.

Even if he just does a mediocre job everywhere else, keeping Republicans out of the White House (and I hope inflicting the first in a series of defeats that causes the party to turn into something more reasonable) is a huge deal.

John B. said...

I don't fully agree with your argument because it's not yet clear how much of a change the Obama administration represents. Granted, he has signaled some breaks with the Bush administration, especially with his preference for diplomacy over saber-rattling. But I think it will take another year or two before we know whether this is a difference in kind or degree.

Chris Brown said...

All you guys do is complain and bitch about Obama this and Obama that, what has he done to you that Bush didn't start, Hello wasn't Bush the one that started the war ? Or wasn't he the reason Gas went sky high, also he's the reason we lost our jobs and our houses are in foreclosure since Obama came in office I was able to afford school, and make something out of my self you people that talk all this nonsense about one's accomplishments are simply selfish ignorant morons who have nothing better to do but throw your tea partys and juice up prejudice if he had been a White man you would be happy and cheering but because he is black you are talking shit and spreading nothing but hate if you even dare claim to be a christian I cast your sorry asses to hell. Because of Obama your un-employed asses are able to log online and talk and spread this hate, I mean think about all the drama in florida with everything going on Republicans did this to our Country not Obama and if you believe everything the press says you are a stupid fuck, Wake up people wake the hell up.

And yes I'm proud to be BLACK

Everett said...

Neil- I think we just have a differing opinion on what the criteria for the Nobel Peace Prize is, and honestly, I don't really know the basis on which the committee selects the winner. I probably should have looked into that before I start passing judgment.

Ultimately, I do think that if President Obama fails to make serious and timely progress toward his stated goals, and also continues to perpetuate many of the errors of the Bush White House that his administration will have really done the country a disservice. The nation took a bit of a gamble on a young, relatively unproven candidate, and I hope that we don't end up losing in the end. Idealism is a powerful driving force, but experience and understanding get things done. Hopefully he will start turning things around sooner than later.

To Chris Brown: As only a few people had commented, one of them being the author of this very pro-Obama piece, I feel safe to assume that you are addressing your comments to me. the racist label. You assert that because I am not praising the President I am a racist. I would argue that simply liking the President because of his skin color is actually quite racist in and of itself. I do not feel the need to defend myself against claims that I am a racist, but rest assured, my opinion of the President, or anyone else for that matter is based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

I am curious as why or how you attribute your recent financial improvement and ability to afford schooling with the Obama administration. Were you impacted by legislation which affected tuition, or did you personally see some sort of windfall due to the stimulus packages? I am genuinely curious, not attempting to insult or attack you in any way.

And don't worry, I don't "dare claim to be a christian", so don't sweat it about the whole damning me to eternity in hell for a 250 word comment on a blog thing. I'm sure it happens all the time.

Lisa said...

I think the Nobel Prize is an honor for the President, he was very gracious about accepting it.

Ruckus said...

Very well written piece.
For the entire world, not the one that revolves around the stick that a portion of this country has stuck up their asses, a change of this magnitude is very welcome. I believe that at least one group of people think we may be starting to grow up as a country. And in fact we may be doing just that. Un-righteous indignation that we are the chosen ones is a sign of a immature culture and the sooner we get over ourselves and join the rest of the world instead of bullying and killing it the better we will be.
So, does Obama deserve the NPP? I'd say yes. You are correct just being better than the other side is a giant step. Being a lot better has a way to go, but attitudes do matter. And policies that start the change even if the changes are minor are at least the first steps in the correct direction. Changing direction in an organization as large as the US is no easy task but it has started.
For running against the status quo and running a campaign that won against pretty high odds. That is a pretty big change in the world. And one that is aimed in the correct direction.

Lisa said...

I think the Nobel Prize is an honor for the President, he was very gracious about accepting it.

janinsanfran said...

I've read a lot of these efforts to capture what the Nobel means over the last few days. This is the best so far.