Thursday, October 15, 2009

The power of hope

This was my column yesterday.  Late post. 

Like everyone else, I reacted with genuine surprise at the selection of United States President Barack Obama as this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. I have great admiration for Obama both as a person and as a leader. I think he epitomizes that one admirable quality that other leaders can only aspire for but which he is able to do effortlessly by just being himself, and that is to be an inspiration to others.

As can be expected, the reactions varied from genuine elation to utter contempt. The Internet buzzed all over the weekend with all kinds of commentary. The whole gamut of reactions can be summed up in three points.

First, that the award is premature since the President has not really had the time to produce results yet. Some issues about technicalities (mainly about deadlines and time frames) led many to suspect that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee adjusted the rules to accommodate Obama. The deadline for nominations was February and Obama was barely two weeks as President at that time. What data was included in the nomination papers then? The Committee deliberated and chose the winner last June, barely four months into Obama’s presidency and yet many of the justifications being offered today were recent events.

Second, assumptions about what the Nobel Peace Prize should be rewarding. There are those who insist that the award should go to people who have labored all their lives for the sake of bringing peace to the world. Is the Nobel Peace Prize an award for lifetime achievement or is it recognition for achievements made over a specific period —say, one year?

Third, questions related to Obama’s actual achievements as a leader fully committed to the quest for peace. The general drift of the discussions is that Obama’s achievements have so far been in rhetoric rather than actual actions. In short, what he has done so far is make a few feel-good speeches and symbolic affirmations of his commitment to a nuclear-free world. The reality is that he is the incumbent president of a country that is still at war in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Of course there are also all sorts of commentaries from rabid ideologues but I think these comments can be ignored for the moment. I personally think that we can do away with the comments from the Taliban, from extreme rightists, and those from the hosts of the Fox Network.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee said Obama was chosen for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples.” The committee cited Obama’s efforts to strengthen international bodies and promote nuclear disarmament. The case being made by many out there is that this citation is theoretically applicable to many leaders. Obama is not exactly the lone voice in the wild calling for nuclear disarmament; and so far, he has not been able to match his mellifluous rhetoric with hardcore action.

The Nobel Peace Prize, which is named after Alfred Nobel, the Swedish arms manufacturer and inventor of dynamite who bequeathed his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, was established to recognize “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.”

There were those who, like Irish peace campaigner and 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan who came out with strongly-worded statement saying that Obama’s selection has not met the conditions of Alfred Nobel’s will which stipulates that the prize is to be awarded to those who work for an end to militarism and war and for disarmament. As everyone knows, Obama has continued USA’s policy of militarism and occupation in Afghanistan.

All the discussion about dates and timelines seems like an exercise in nitpicking. I think, though, that they are relevant and not necessarily because of the technicalities involved. The general assumption that people have about the Nobel Prize is that it is a reward for past achievements—in many cases, for a body of works or a lifetime of commitment.

This assumption has been nurtured through the years because of the selection of winners who have established reputations for having been indefatigable advocates of peace all their lives and whose advocacies become institutionalized the world over. Think Nelson Mandela, or the Dalai Lama, or Lech Walesa, or Doctors Without Borders, or the International Campaign to Bank Landmines.

Actually, the prize is not for lifelong achievement. It is meant to recognize an individual who “has done extraordinarily well in creating an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation over a specific period,” in this case, for the preceding year. However, it is reflective of the level of passion many people have about the quest for peace that they project their own expectations and standards into the Nobel Peace Prize.

Reports indicate that there were a record 205 nominations for this year’s prize and that Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister and a Chinese dissident were among the front runners. Without meaning to reduce the achievements of the other nominees, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Obama was indeed the man who stood tall as the world’s leading symbol of peace last year and not just because of the color of his skin. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the Norwegian committee said when it announced the selection. “His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”

All these lead us to what seems to be the main issue around Obama’s selection. I think that most people associate rewards with hard, measurable achievements that happened in the past and the concept of rewarding potentials, or looking at it as investment in future performance is something that is still alien to many. It is as if heroism and good work emerge from a vacuum rather than something induced and nurtured. As a consequence, there has been this relentless focus on quantifying standards; many get caught up in the numbers game and lose sight of issues and factors that are deemed soft or ephemeral such as ideals; or aspirations such as hope and promise. The general belief is that good intentions are good, but never good enough because the world is supposedly created by actions, not good intentions.

In recognizing Obama, the Nobel Committee is sending a strong message to the world. There has never been another world leader since Obama who has inspired and therefore drastically changed the way many people look at themselves or at the world. Put another way, the award is in recognition of the power of hope, the immense might of potential as against action. It is potential that makes great changes happen. It is in our capacity to hold a vision and to champion that vision that the impossible becomes possible.

In a world increasingly growing cynical, one thing remains clear: The world cares about peace. The question is: Do we see peace as a destination that we arrive at or as a journey that we all embark on together?

9 comments:

chris brown said...

they should really leave Obama alone I mean really.

Anonymous said...

It's not about Barack Obama.
It's about the United States of America and its role in history and in the world.
The unambiguous message of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of the Storting, Norway's parliament, is candidly stated in the public announcement of the Prize. It is the dream of a world in which the role of the United States of America in all respects is vastly diminished.
Mr. Obama remains what he has been throughout his remarkable political career: An exponent of certain "values and attitudes" and, more, a living symbol of them. Those who share those "values and attitudes" recognize them immediately. For nearly everyone else they drift by, vague, barely erceptible, lost in the radiance of the individual man's personality and his myth.
The Peace Prize Committee gets it. In honoring Barack Obama they mean to honor the "concept" that he represents. If it stimulates the honoree to do more to advance that concept, so much the better, but that is not the main point.
The old men of Oslo fervently hope that they are heralding a new reality. It is not Barack Obama, per se, but the emergence of a "new American": Unexceptional, no longer revolutionary, conforming, instead, in the words of the Prize Committee's announcement, to the "values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population".
The American tradition of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison is one of rejection of "values and attitudes" that have shackled most of the world's people throughout most of history, and that continue to do so to this day.
Our tradition is a paradox, of course, that of the "conservative revolution", for behind the American Founders stands a long and ancient tradition of our own, from Biblical and classical antiquity through the evolution of the common law to the thought of Locke, Smith, and Burke. The paradox at the heart of our tradition celebrates the free individual as a member of an organic civil society.
But it is a paradox that works. Those, beginning with the Americans themselves, who do the hard work of understanding and living this tradition have proved that they can build societies that are, at once, free, rich, generous, tolerant, principled, and decent, leaving others seemingly in history's dust.
We of that tradition see ourselves as apostles and defenders of liberty. Old men in Teheran see us as atheists and libertines. Old men in Beijing see us as marketeers and materialists. Old men in Oslo see us as unrefined "cowboys".
These groupings of men, whether or not chronologically old, represent old orders that America has challenged from the beginning. At least superficially, they do not have a lot in common with each other, except one thing: They know that the American Idea is, and since 1776 has been, their joint, several, and ultimate enemy.
The world's tyrants, thugs, and airy experts have mocked, despised, and feared the American Experiment since its birth. They have been much frustrated, defeated, and galled by America's global preeminence over the last century.
They almost certainly do not see themselves as I have characterized them. They may even perceive themselves as somewhat conservative, the defenders of their respective old and legitimate orders.
The men of the Prize Committee recur, respectfully, to the will of Alfred Nobel, where they find that he directed the Storting to bestow the award upon "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

Anonymous said...

How could they not award the prize to Mr. Obama? Set aside what it is that he actually seeks to accomplish - if he even knows. Barack Obama is widely perceived in the world as determined to achieve the abolition or reduction of not one, but of two, of the world's most formidable -- and most reviled -- standing armies: Those of the United States of America and of the State of Israel.
This use of the Peace Prize as a political weapon against the United States is not new.
Long gone are the days when recipients were the likes of Lech Walensa (1983), Mother Teresa (1979), Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (1978), Andrei Sakharov (1975), Martin Luther King (1964), George Marshall (1953), Albert Schweitzer (1952), Charles G. Dawes, himself a Chicagoan and a former Vice President of the United States (1925), and former President Theodore Roosevelt, who negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War (1909). That they all actually did something is beside the point. Rather, to one degree or another, American or not, they all represented some principle tied to the American Idea.
Instead, the modern crop of Peace Prize-winners, even when they have been Americans, were chosen as conscious rebukes to the United States and American "exceptionalism": Yasser Arafat (1994), Jimmy Carter (2002), Al Gore (2007), Kofi Annan (2001), Mohamed Al-Baradei (2005), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005), and even the United Nations (2001) itself.
The American Idea - a republic, e pluribus unum, of self-governing people, built upon the bedrock of limited government and the rule of law, in the civic life of which race, religion, ethnicity, origin, and class mean nothing, and in the private life of which they can mean as much or as little as people freely choose - is hateful to the "concept" of Oslo and therefore to the men of Oslo.
That's the message of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
Through our history, the success and survival of the American Experiment have depended on the approval of no potentates, pundits, philosopher-kings, or peoples chained to the old orders. They have resented us for it, but they have been able to do nothing about it, because America's fate was in the hands of the American people, and the Americans knew, understood, treasured, and defended their heritage of constitutional liberty.
Until now. Are Americans still revolutionaries, free and brave, determined to go our own way, the benighted "values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population" be damned?
Do we still "yearn to breathe free"? Or have we sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, of the cradle-to-grave "security" that is promised, in varying visions, by those old men in power in Oslo, Teheran, and Beijing?
This is not about Mr. Obama. It is about us.

Anonymous said...

In all seriousness: this is complete lunacy, of course. There was a whole host of worthier contenders for this prize, from Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai to the Green Revolutionaries in Iran. Even Bono would have been a more deserved winner than Obama, who has done precisely zip, zilch, nada, to deserve this award. In his nine short months in office, he has achieved nothing apart from giving a few speeches, befriending a few dictators and alienating a lot of allies. To award such a prestigious prize as a sort of encouragement to perhaps achieve things that would justify the decision after the fact is beyond a joke.

Uncle Sam said...

I am at a total loss for words. Sometimes, an event occurs that is so sublimely ridiculous that it becomes a parody of itself. That's what we have here.

The news could just as easily be a Saturday Night Live comedy skit or a Mad Magazine layout. If it had appeared in either one of those venues yesterday, it would have seemed a ripe subject for satire and humor. I daresay even many liberals would have laughed at the notion of Obama getting the Nobel for peace.

No sense ignoring the obvious; what has he done? Teddy Roosevelt got his peace prize for mediating between Japan and Russia and ending their bloody war. Woodrow Wilson got his for his efforts at peace after World War I. Jimmy Carter - whatever else you can say about him - engineered a singular, personal triumph with the Camp David accords which was the first peace agreement between Israel and another Arab state.

What's Obama done? What peace has he negotiated? What efforts of his have born fruit?

I suppose an organization that thought Yassar Arafat worthy of the same prize can't be taken seriously anyway. But they are. And there are implications beyond the profound stupidity of awarding this prize to a neophyte who hasn't accomplished anything.

matthew said...

Barack Obama's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize should surprise and astonish exactly nobody.

The prize committee has long since abandoned any pretense of being anything other than a leftist political body determined to undermine any and all actions by the United States or other democratic bodies who deign to defend themselves against murderous aggressors. This is the same committee which awarded the very same prize to the gangster Yasser Arafat, and frankly admitted that bestowing the award on Jimmy Carter was "a kick in the leg" to George W. Bush.

Any roster of peace prize recipients that does not include the likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and/or Pope John Paul II is incomplete, and such omissions render the prize itself meaningless.

Had the president decided to decline the honor, he would have been universally applauded for acknowledging that the prize has not yet been earned - that while he appreciated the gesture of goodwill and confidence, it was not his to claim. No. As he has accepted the plaudits and royalties of a book it is increasingly clear he did not write, he will accept an award (plus the check that goes with it) for accomplishments he did not achieve.

In this world gone mad, Barack Obama's validation by this particular committee of moral relativists more interested in platitudes and bromides about the big, bad USA as opposed to tangible accomplishments by those who have actually done the hard work of sowing peace and freedom is perfect.

Richard Macalintal said...

Nobel Losers Who Were Just Not Good Enough...

Chinese Human Rights Activist Hu Jia - imprisoned for campaigning for human rights in the PRC, not as worthy as Barack Hussein Obama.

Wei Jingsheng, who spent 17 years in Chinese prisons for urging reforms of China's communist system. -- not as worthy as Barack Hussein Obama. (Not to mention the symbolic value of awarding a Chinese dissident on the 20th Anniversary of the Tianenmen Square Massacre.)

Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute has built nearly 80 schools, especially for girls, in remote areas of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past 15 years - not as worthy as Barack Hussein Obama.

Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a philosophy professor in Jordan who risks his life by advocating interfaith dialogue between Jews and Muslims, also not as worthy as Barack Hussein Obama.

Afghan human rights activist Sima Samar. She currently leads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and serves as the U.N. special envoy to Darfur and is apparently also not as worthy as Barack Hussein Obama.

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Bong C. Austero said...

Thanks for all the comments, guys.

I don't think that we disagree on the major points.

I, too, agree, that the award does not really honor actual achievements. Like I said, it seemed to honor the spirit which Barack Obama represents so eloquently at this point. Potentials are to some people's minds, more potent than reality.

I agree that there are others out there who are also as worthy as Barack Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize. I don't think that their accomplishments or their exemplary achievements have been rendered worthless because Obama was chosen over them.

What I find noteworthy in all of these exchanges is this: We all care about peace in the world. Unfortunately, it is a task that cannot be left to the Obamas of this world.

So I hope this gives us the opportunity to take a hard long look at how we see peace and our own individual roles in making it happen.