At first I thought the New York Times website must have been hacked. The idea of President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize seemed too far-fetched to believe. But when I clicked back a few minutes later the headline was even bigger. Then a colleague, a senior Swedish diplomat who's spent years working on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, came to my door and, somewhat incredulously, said "I guess congratulations are in order." We both shook our heads in confusion.
The emails started pouring in minutes later, most bemused if not downright angry. An Egyptian colleague with whom I had lunch summed up the vehement objections by many to the Nobel Committees choice by pointing out that President Obama's Cairo speech, cited as a justification for giving him the world's most important award, has been followed by no changes in the substance of US policy.
Talk is cheap, she explained. What has the President done to make the world a more peaceful or just place? With Israel and Iran, America's most important ally and enemy, each flouting its policy goals with equal impunity, it's hard to see the justification for rewarding those policies, however laudable they may be.
Who could blame people around the world from concluding that however noble his ideals, the Nobel Committee has bet on the wrong horse in choosing to bestow the Peace Prize upon President Obama. Obama clearly understands this, which is why he began his remarks accepting the award by admitting that he did not deserve to be considered a "transformative figure" of the kind who have been honored by the Committee in the past.
Can Peace and Realpolitik Coexist?
Perhaps the Committee understands something deeper about how serious and dangerous is the historical moment we are passing through than the rest of us are considering. Perhaps they felt that while other nominees might have risked or achieved more than the President, the magnitude of the challenge facing Obama, and us along with him, demanded their using the power of the Nobel Prize to call attention to the possibility for real movement on crucial issues if Obama gets the support he needs.
President Obama's remarks accepting the award betrayed a strong sense of dissonance in acknowledging the honor bestowed upon him. He clearly understands that in recognizing him, the Committee was declaring that the crises facing humanity today are of a magnitude that demands entering " ... into the realm of realpolitik. It is always a mix of idealism and realpolitik that can change the world," the Committee Chairman and former Norwegian Prime Minister, Thorbjorn Jagland, explained.
The President seconded this idea, admitting that rather than honoring specific achievements, choosing him was a "means to give momentum to a set of causes" and help unite the world to face common challenges.
Few would argue that the world needs to unite to face the challenges highlighted by the Nobel Committee. The question is, under whose leadership and which vision? Obama talks of reengaging the world and utilizing international institutions such as the United Nations. But he seems to be unable to transcend the long-standing view among American politicians that unity can only be achieved under a Pax Americana. He remains as wedded to a belief in American exceptionalism (as Alexandre de Toqueville first described it) that gives the United States the natural right and obligation to lead the world -- in his words, to reaffirm "American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations" -- as were his predecessors.
Engage, yes. Call on all nations to "take responsibility for the world we seek," absolutely. But relinquish America's self-appointed role as the light onto the nations, and the power and perks that go with it? Not very likely.
Indeed, as long as the United States acts from the perspective of the world's major imperial power, it will never be able to lead the way towards peace, even with Obama at the helm. The entire edifice of American economic power and political and military might remains geared, as George Kennan first described it over half a century ago, to ensuring that a country with roughly six percent of the world's population continues to control the majority of its wealth and resources, while dividing a huge share of the rest between its Western allies and distributing enough scraps to third world clients to perpetuate the system.
To achieve this goal, Keenan continued, "we have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming... concentrate everywhere on our immediate national objectives...[and] deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better."
It is precisely the practitioners of this realpolitik, which the Nobel Committee decided to engage, who will fight tooth and nail against the objectives the Committee hope to achieve by engaging it. It is this realpolitik that explains why even as the president stood in Cairo this past June committing his Administration to unprecedented engagement with the Muslim world, he was unable to challenge his Egyptian hosts to stop torturing its citizens and democratize its political system.
It is also why he cannot demand Israel abide by international law and stop (never mind reverse) settlement construction, or even suggest it give up its nuclear arms as an incentive for Iran to dismantle its program. It's why the president can't even demand the government of a tiny client state, Honduras, reinstate its overthrown President. And it's why he doesn't dare suggest that China and India give Tibetans or Kashmiris the opportunity for meaningful autonomy, never mind independence.
It is a sign of how far remains the road to be traveled that since the announcement of Obama's award hardly any reports have mentioned that only days earlier Obama canceled his meeting with the 1989 Peace Prize winner, the Dalai Lama, "to keep China happy." Peace and Freedom still hold little currency against the wishes of the world's fastest growing political, military and economic power.
Useful Historical Amnesia?
In declaring during acceptance of the prize that peace and freedom have "always been the cause of America," Obama is engaging in a very selective reading of American history. Yet it cannot be denied that, whatever the reality of US policies, America's founding ideals have inspired people around the globe for two centuries to seek both.
Obama's problem is that to truly lead today, he would have to challenge the full weight of "immediate national objectives" described by Keenan as they've been defined for for well over half a century. Along with them, he'd have to take on the political, economic and military interests who have profited so immensely from the status quo.
The incredible difficulty the president has faced reforming the American financial or health care systems do not augur well for the chances he will be able ramp down American military power (over 1,000 military bases and counting) against deeply entrenched forces for whom the peace dividend will never approach the profits attainable through war and exploitation.
Which Message, What Kind of Program?
Obama certainly faces long odds, which is likely why, in answering critics of the Committee's choice, Norway's Jagland explained that despite the risk that Obama might fail, "at least we want to embrace the message that he stands for." But it remains unclear not merely what Obama is willing to stand for, but what he's willing to fight for as well.
At his recent UN speech the President declared that "those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone."
But these sentiments require a commitment not merely to listen to and work with others, but often to follow others' lead, whether its the climate policies of Western allies or peace and development proposals developed by small NGOs located in the global south. Following is something that no great power is wont to do, especially when the policies or proposals offered by others conflict with the interests of its political and economic leadership.
To fulfill the wishes of the Nobel Committee President Obama would, quite literally, have to redefine the "real" in realpolitik so that the interests of America's corporate, financial, political and military elite are compatible with an agenda of human rights, democracy, and sustainable development. It is hard to imagine Obama or any American or world leader for that matter achieving such an unprecedented transformation in political, even human consciousness. At least not alone.
But then again, the price of failing to confront the threats highlighted by the Nobel Committee is even harder to consider. And while Obama will have to lead as much by following as by demanding others toe the US line, it is indisputable that absent courageous and forward-thinking American policies, change at the global level will be impossible.
In choosing President Obama at this early stage of his Presidency the Nobel Committee recognized both the dire threat posed by the status quo and the unique opportunity offered by America's first African American -- indeed, international -- president. It is up to Obama to use the Prize as an opening to pursue truly transformational policies on the world stage regardless of the potential political cost to him. It's up to the rest of us to put aside our narrow ethnic, national, religious or economic interests and help lead the way.