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The Obama Dividend: Is World Peace Finally Possible?

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Although it has become something of a cliché in popular culture, I doubt that there is a more basic desire among humanity than achieving world peace. A major problem with this notion throughout recorded history has been that governments -- feudalisms, monarchies, and democracies alike -- have often worked at cross purposes to peace. And yet, the fact that the goal remains as potent and widespread as it does is telling of how powerful the lure of a peaceful world really is.

Undoubtedly, the election of Barack Obama as U.S. President has buoyed peoples' hopes in this regard. Some local peace groups that have diligently kept vigil for many years -- such as the one in Potsdam, New York -- have ceased doing so in a nod to Obama's potential as a peacemaker. There seems to be a sense among peace advocates that there is finally a willing ear and maybe even an actual ally in the White House, and indeed our new President seems to possess qualities both rhetorical and substantive to suggest that the scales of peace and justice may at long last be tipping in a positive direction.

But hope and reality do not automatically converge. The path to peace, while bolstered by Obama's presence, is perhaps rockier now than ever before. From one view, the world is more complex, the issues are thornier, the sense of urgency direr, and the hole dug by the previous Administration deeper than even our most jaded cynics might suppose. On the other hand, the people of the world are war-weary, more interconnected, and aware in a meaningful way of the magnitude of the crises we collectively face. Simply put, it appears that peace has moved from becoming a remote ideal to a true necessity if the human race is to survive, and this creates an unprecedented opportunity to attain it.

Still, we cannot in our hopefulness minimize the nature of the problem. We can, however, focus our positive predilections on the issues that most demand our attention. In that spirit, I propose five primary areas where we will want to bring our newfound -- and much deserved -- enthusiasm to bear in the quest to realize a true global peace:

The Middle East: Many scholars and policymakers have argued that the road to peace runs directly through this war-torn region. The analysis, however, often ignores the intentions and desires of the overwhelming majority of people living amidst the day-to-day sense of conflict that pervades their lives. We rarely ever hear about peace groups and conscientious objectors in Israel, cross-border peace initiatives and educational programs spearheaded by Palestinians, Iraqi doctors working tirelessly to heal the wounds of war, or nonviolence adherents practicing throughout the region. Would we in the U.S. want to be judged primarily on the basis of decisions made by our leaders? Strife in the Middle East may be palpable, but so too is the dominant view that peace is preferable. President Obama seems to have implicitly acknowledged this by affirming both Israel's right of security and the basic human rights of the Palestinian people.

Nuclear Proliferation: Here we confront a specific and acute example of how we relate to the technologies we create. With the proliferation of nuclear materials and the knowledge of how to weaponize them, we have unleashed the power of annihilation and placed it in the hands of more entities than we might care to imagine. And it's not only the weapons but the reliance on nuclear energy and the wastes it produces that are bound up with these sorts of extinction scenarios, as one facet (energy) feeds the other (weaponry). In a Pollyannaish view, we would discover a device to disable all nuclear reactions on the planet and thus put that ill-begotten genie back in the bottle forever. But in reality, I wonder whether the sense of literally having our shared fate in our collective human hands might serve as a global bond in which we mutually decide to reaffirm our commitments to the sanctity of life and the existence of future generations. Obama, to his credit, has not thus far predicated either his energy or foreign policies on nuclear devices, and in fact whitehouse.gov contains a strong impetus to achieve a nuclear-free world.

Terrorism: There is actually no such thing as a "terrorist" -- terrorism is a tactic, not a nationality or religion or cadre of persons. People who feel compelled to fight, either in perceived self-defense or from misguided moral certitude, when faced with a superior military adversary will oftentimes resort to "nonlinear" tactics such as suicide bombings and spectacular hit-and-run attacks. We cannot be so unitary in our view of this set of methods as to ignore the fact that this has played an important role in our own history (e.g., the American Revolution) and also that it partly defines our foreign policies and the way we are viewed by the rest of the world (e.g., Shock & Awe). Warfare and militarism actually breed terrorism, giving it moral cover under which to act. The surest path to eliminating this tactic is to promote equality of opportunity and to democratize hopefulness, since terrorism takes hold primarily in instances of differential power and is rarely used by people with better options and a future that they view optimistically. Obama's rhetoric that we will "defeat and destroy" terrorists misses the mark, although his anti-terrorism platform also includes an educational component that is promising.

The Biosphere: Peace cannot be attained in piecemeal fashion, but requires a holistic perspective that includes both human and non-human components. The understanding that we belong to the earth as much as or more than it belongs to us is beginning to take hold in a meaningful way. Partly motivated by basic necessity and partly by evolving consciousness, we find ourselves on the threshold of a moment where cognizance of our mutual interdependence with the environment is undeniable. This in itself may be our best hope for world peace, even as we stand literally on the precipice of irreversible damage to the biosphere and the planet's life-carrying capacities. President Obama can be a crucial figure in helping to secure policy gains that reflect this growing consciousness, and we will need to encourage him to take the bold strokes necessary to accomplish this.

People Power: Here finally we come directly to our own personal role in all of this, and in fact it aligns closely with the spirit of Obama's presidential campaign in its "yes we can" ethic and "building a movement" sensibility. Bringing peace to the world sounds daunting, but it can start with and grow from each of us. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "We all have a great desire to be able to live in peace and to have environmental sustainability.... We can't only blame our governments and corporations for the chemicals that pollute our drinking water, for the violence in our neighborhoods, for the wars that destroy so many lives. It's time for each of us to wake up and take action in our own lives." If we are to hold rights in this world, we ought to take responsibility as well.

In the end, there is much to be optimistic about. But a few words of caution are in order. First, peace is more about process than result, in the sense that there is no "there" there; it is sometimes said that peace is asymptotic, meaning that we may approach but never reach a final destination where all issues are settled. Indeed, this sort of peace, devoid of conflict and challenge, would be eminently boring and unattainable in almost any practical calculus. It is therefore important to articulate and maintain a strong vision of peace even if reality doesn't always cohere, and to use that image to help guide us through the rocky times that are sure to ensue along the way.

In this light, we might borrow the mantra from Octavia Butler's Parable novels that "God is change," a theme echoed in spirit by our new President, and thus come to realize that we have already found what we seek once we begin to look for it. As Peace Pilgrim once said, "if you want to make peace, you must be peaceful." And finally, let's not lose sight of the fact that peace is more than just overcoming strife and stopping warfare -- it should also be a celebration of our creativity and common humanity, our connection to each other and all things. A single individual may not be able to bring this ethos to the entire world, but an infectious sense of hope and possibility can point the way to peace.