Freedom New Mexico
To his credit, in his acceptance address, President Obama addressed several of the ironies involved in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Peace with humility, humor and a thoughtful disquisition on the delicate relationship among conflict, war, fanaticism and peace.
Although he made the best of the situation, there was still something ironic about a head of state involved in two wars, one of which he had chosen to escalate a scant nine days before, accepting a prize ostensibly designed to honor peacemakers.
In fact, there was something surreal about the occasion.
“Compared to some of the giants of history who’ve received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela” the president said, “my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in pursuit of justice … the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened cynics.”
He also acknowledged that “I’m responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed.” He was disingenuous in saying the Afghan war is “an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks,” but he is hardly alone in holding that view.
That led to a nuanced discussion of the difficulty of creating peace and eradicating war, noting that “evil does exist in the world” and “force may sometimes be necessary.” The upshot was an endorsement of interventionist internationalism balanced by a sense of limits, of knowledge of what is possible in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people.
While balanced and sometimes admirable, President Obama’s speech had a curious professorial detachment for somebody who is actively, perhaps even daily involved in making decisions about military activities not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but around the world.
The tension in the speech and in the entire presentation is something the Nobel committee should take into account in making future selections.
The committee has been criticized in part for giving the prize to President Obama much too soon, at a time in his presidency when his relationship to progress in the direction of peace initiatives is more aspiration than accomplishment. Indeed, some have suggested that President Obama was awarded the prize simply for not being Bush.
We might suggest a deeper critique — that the committee reconsider the idea of giving the Peace Prize to members of governments, and particularly to heads of state. Not only can heads of state be forced or even pressured by exigencies into actions that are hardly peaceful, they head institutions that are by definition monopolists on the use of force. Indeed, some would say that governments by their nature are force, and peace can best be promoted by minimizing the use of force rather than congratulating those who use it, even judiciously.
President Obama would probably have done better to decline the prize when it was offered on the grounds that he has not yet created a record in international affairs. He made the best of a potentially awkward situation with a graceful speech. But it was hardly the Nobel committee’s best moment.