Friday, 9 October 2009

A Nobel prize for imagination
It's Friday night. You're home, you've just had dinner, and you turn on the tv to have a look at the movie channels. The first thing you see is the logo of BBC World, as this is the channel you were watching last time. Second, you see a line saying 'Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize.' You reread the line, and again, and wonder if you understood it well. You must have - it's pretty hard to misinterpret a line like that. Next, you wonder whether you might have slept ten years last night, without noticing it (it would explain why you lost so much hair, when you were combing it this morning). After all, the guy wasn't supposed to win that prize until 2020. By then, he may have reduced the number of nuclear weapons drastically, contributed to peace in the Middle East, eliminated poverty in his own country, reduced carbon emissions by 50%, and successfully undermined the popularity of both Orientalist and Occidentalist myths of differentiation - right now, however, he hasn't achieved any of his great goals yet. It's quite surreal, therefore, that he gets the prize so early. The timing of the Nobel committee sure is surprising - I don't think anyone would disagree on that.

Poor guy. The Scandinavians really knew how to surprise him (and the rest of the world) this week. First, there was the humiliating defeat in Copenhagen, at the IOC meeting, where favourite city Chicago was the first to be eliminated in the elections for the 2016 Olympics. Only a couple of days later, the Norwegians awarded him the most prestigious political prize there is - just when he was beginning to wonder what had happened to his charisma and popularity. It wasn't just the defeat in Copenhagen that gave him doubts: much more crucial were his healthcare reforms, which didn't exactly go uncontested in his country (apparently, many of his ignorant countrymen demand the God-given freedom to not insure themselves and their children, so that if they get seriously ill, they can face their fate and die in proud poverty). Even European audiences seemed to have lost their initial enthusiasm for his messianic messages. People were demanding 'concrete results' - as if one person could transform global power structures, and bring world peace, within 8 months. I seriously doubt whether God himself would be capable of it, but it was expected of Barack Obama nonetheless.

I open my facebook homepage. As I expected, many of my facebook friends have commented on the Nobel committee's decision, or posted links with comments written by others. The decision has caused quite a massive online uproar, it seems. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who is writing on their weblog to give their opinion on this issue - in fact, I doubt whether a Nobel prize has ever caused so many reactions. I also seriously doubt whether a Nobel prize has ever caused so many negative reactions, for that matter. The most common (and the mildest) negative reaction, on facebook as well as elsewhere on the internet, is that 'he hasn't deserved it yet'. Apparently, everyone suddenly seems to be an expert on the conditions for winning a Nobel peace prize. Personally, I wouldn't consider myself in a position to judge. I don't know exactly what Obama has done. Sure, I have read a couple of newspaper articles, watched the news, and listened to some of his inspiring speeches - but that doesn't make me an expert on (international) politics, diplomacy, and peace resolution. So in contrast to many people, I don't know whether he 'deserves' it or not. I wonder where all those ad hoc experts got their information, and where they got the authority to make any statements regarding whether the prize was 'deserved' or not. In any case, so far, I haven't come across any convincing arguments against the decision from people who seem to actually be well-informed.

Sure, I've read the (mainly leftist) Pavlov reactions. His army is still in Iraq, he is sending new troops to Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay still isn't closed, he still supports Israel despite their continuing annexation of land and their violation of human rights, he hasn't smoked a cigar with Fidel yet, et cetera. So what did you expect the guy to do - revise the results of fifty years of American foreign policy within the blink of an eye? Retreat from Afghanistan immediately, so that the Taliban can seize power and commit a Pol Pot-ish genocide on everybody they accuse of collaboration (i.e., half of the nation's population)? Insult some of his most powerful allies, only to lose the support that is necessary for establishing lasting peace? The reality is that the legacy of George W. Bush is almost impossible to cope with, especially in the Middle East. The US have caused an absolute chaos in parts of the region - but ignoring it and leaving it to bleed, of which some people seem to be in favour, is not exactly what I would call acting responsibly. Many people seemed to have had completely unrealistic expectations, and are now criticising Obama for not radically overturning the existing world order. As if any of the previous Nobel peace prize laureates was capable of doing that. As if anyone would be.

It's like we're all on the Titanic together. The ship is moving way too fast, and there are plenty of icebergs around, but the vast majority of the passengers is quite oblivious to the outside world. Sure, many have opinions about the ship - which direction it should take, what colour the dining rooms should have, who the captain should be, and so on - but very few have been up in the crow's nest to actually look around, and very few know how the engines work. Some wonder: who made this ship, where is it headed, how does it work. Many others are too busy arguing about the colours of the dining rooms, or the contents of the menu. Actually, most of the passengers have never seen the dining rooms - they are trying to survive life in the third class, between the rats, and may not even know they're on a ship.

Since a while, there is a new captain on the ship. At first, he was very popular among crew and passengers, as he seemed to really know something about the direction of the ship and its outside world - in sharp contrast to the last captain, who was dangerously ignorant of both. But the new captain has lost some of his popularity, as some crew members didn't agree with his decisions. 'Why bring first aid kits to the third class, if they don't want them? Let's repaint our dining room walls instead!'

The captain is not omnipotent, and he knows it. He needs his crew. He needs his personal advisors as much as he needs the workers in the engine rooms. Most of all, he needs the support of his passengers. He doesn't know everything, but he does know that the ship is approaching an iceberg. And he knows that if they don't want to hit it, the passengers should stop arguing and fighting each other, and stop threatening that they will set fire to each other's rooms.

He is a good speaker, but they find it hard to listen. At times, he feels remarkably powerless, despite the fact that he's the most powerful person on the ship. He realises he can't possibly make the ship turn around, as it's going way too fast - even though that seems to be what some passengers expect him to do. All he can do is try to make it change its direction a little. He doesn't even know what is the right way to do so. Nobody does. But at least he wants to give it a try, and he calls on his crew and passengers to help him. There's an iceberg out there, after all.

Now let's have a look at what Obama has done, for a change, in stead of what he has not (yet). To quote Mohamed el-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency: 'In less than a year he brought a radical change in the way we look at ourselves, in the way we look at our world. He is restoring the basic core values that every one of us should live by - dialogue, respect, democracy, due process, human rights, a security system that does not depend on nuclear weapons.' Obama, in short, is not only using his power to implement actual policies; he also makes serious efforts to contribute to a positive change in the ways people think about religious and cultural differences, collective responsibility, and conflict resolution. After a decade in which Huntingtonian cultural essentialism and mythical, almost apocalyptic beliefs in violently clashing civilisations have constituted the dominant worldview in much international policymaking, his pluralist plea for the acceptance of differences and mutual recognition of shared interests - the most fundamental of which is the desire for peace - is a brave and beautiful attempt to try to establish a paradigm shift. Obama has the courage to do what few people do: believe, dream, and imagine. Moreover, he has the skills and power to share his beliefs and dreams with others, to spread optimisim and hope. That is a remarkable achievement, especially in these uncertain and confusing times, which are so full of icebergs.

Some people who react to the decision dismiss the importance of visions, dreams, and values. It's about concrete actions, they argue, not about intentions. But they underestimate the power of ideas. We should not forget that our lives are made up of stories, that the world is in the eye of the beholder. Ideas and stories have the power to transform, literally, as the way people perceive the world is always coloured and informed by their worldviews. Words can lead to political action, to violence, to emancipation, to protest or to revolution. They can stimulate discrimination or acceptance. They are not harmless; they are powerful. Therefore, Obama's speech in Cairo was a political deed, nothing less. So was the speech in which he stated his commitment to get rid of all nuclear weapons. The very fact that the president of the US makes such a statement constitutes a significant paradigmatic change.

Thus, people who react to this prize by saying dismissively 'I have dreams too, I should have received that Nobel prize' completely underestimate the power and political relevance of words, especially when spoken by somebody in his position. But go ahead. Share your dreams, be optimistic, and be vulnerable. Who knows, you might get that prize one day.

I'm not saying he is infallable. Nobody is. He is the most powerful person in the world - of course he will have to make choices that some people don't like. Of course he won't turn the US into a social-liberal paradise overnight. Of course he will have a hard time finding and staying on the Middle Way, when everyone's trying to push him in different directions. And of course he will make decisions and support policies that I personally disagree with (I do think he should be more critical of Netanyahu and his settler friends, for instance). But nonetheless, the zeal with which he has advocated his ideals of religious tolerance, peaceful co-existence and nuclear non-proliferation, and the tentative move towards a paradigm shift in American foreign policy that he seems to have established, do seem like a great achievement to me.

I don't know whether he deserves that prize or not. I don't know the conditions, I don't have the information the insiders have. I'm not a crew member of the ship. But as a passenger (one who sometimes wonders where the ship is going) I'm happy he got it. I find his words and ideas personally inspiring, I share his naïve hope for more and better understanding and the overcoming of prejudices, and I hope he will make a contribution to the fight against climate change. He's not the Saviour, and there are many things he won't be able to achieve - but he is a visionary, with a powerful message. I like visionaries. And I like the fact that the Nobel prize committee had the courage to award to prize to a beginning president, who may succeed, but who may also become disillusioned and fail. In any case, it is a brave and significant political act of support.

Good luck, Mr. President. You've only just begun.


  1. Hi Aike,

    Thanks for sharing this, I agree and am happy to see you saying this; a nice change from what so many other people are saying right now.

  2. Somewhere I read he got the price for not being Bush. But I prefer your explanation.

  3. You don’t need to be an expert on international relations or radical left to see that Obama got the Nobel for nothing but words. And that in the history of the Nobel Prize people were normally awarded because of their deeds. Whether they deserve it or not shall not be answered.

    I agree with you that words are important and that they can lead to political actions.

    But isn’t it quite ignorant to tell a Palestinian, Iraqi or an Afghani: “Come on don’t dismiss the importance of visions, dream, and values”, after the shit they faced? Just imagine how people reacted in the countries mentioned above, in their position I would think it is a big joke and I would feel insulted. Obama wins Nobel Peace Price, while the situation in their countries hasn’t changed a bit.

    I can understand that people say this move was intend to strengthen Obama and to put a kind of pressure on him to continue his policy of change, but at the same time and in this state awarding him is ridiculous.

    And wish he had rejected the Noble peace prize, thanking the jury for the consideration and decline it for now. Telling them: “I deserve it when the Palestinians finally see true peace and the settlements are stopped. “ But maybe I am a visionary.

    Send you much love from Berlin

  4. Hi W.,

    Thank you for your reaction. It seems that we don't agree. My main point was that the distinction between words and deeds, so often made in the past couple of days, isn't as obvious and clear-cut as it may seem; that words in fact can be significant political deeds. Look at Martin Luther King, look at Mandela and Tutu: their words, their messages of hope, had the power to mobilise people, to change what was on the political agenda, and eventually, to help overthrow existing systems of racial segregation.

    Ever since the Second World War, American foreign policy was based on differentiation - on the creation of an existential binary opposition between the 'free' West, led by the US, and the other, who was portrayed as a threat to this freedom. After the collapse of communism, a new other was found in the 'Islamic civilisation', to use the concept of the great mythmaker Huntington. Old orientalist myths were rediscovered and retold. This new binary opposition was embraced and reinforced by politicians and audiences on both sides. After all, a symbolic common enemy has the power to unite divided nations and communities.

    Obama's stress on, and belief in the possibility of, shared values, a shared desire for peace, and a shared responsibility for the planet, therefore constitute a major change in paradigm. His approach is inclusive, not exclusive. That is significant.

    You seem to be doing exactly what I was writing about: focus on what he hasn't achieved yet, in stead of on what he has. He has put an end to American unilateralism. He has strengthened diplomatic relations. He has made a positive contribution to interfaith dialogue, in a way no head of state ever has, in a time when it is absolutely necessary. He has aborted the plans to build a giant rocket shield. He has put nuclear non-proliferation back on the international political agenda. Any of these achievements alone would be worth a Nobel prize.

  5. II.

    To be honest, I don't know whether the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan has improved or not. I read it has improved in the former, while it got worse in the latter. I think both developmemts are not directly related to the fact that Obama is president. But I do admire his choice not to do the populist thing (retreat all his troops from Afghanistan and leave the population to be raped by the Taliban), and his commitment to long-term improvement. At this point, we simply can't say anything yet about the influences of Obama's choices on developments in these countries - that takes more time. But I do think his radically different worldview is a major step forward, the results of which hopefully will become clear in the future.

    Let's also bear in mind that when it comes to developments in these countries, there are many more players involved. Sure, the US have created a mess, but at this point the question who is to blame is not so relevant. What's more relevant is the question how to establish lasting peace. The sad reality is that most of the killing there is based on ethnic and religious differences, reified and politicised by local warlords/religious leaders. They have successfully employed fear und uncertainty. Violence has generated more violence. There are simply too many powerful players involved who benefit from war, and who don't really want peace, as it would eventually undermine their position.

    In such situations, Obama's pleas for tolerance, mutual acceptance, and the recognition of shared values and needs - in sum, the humanity of the other - may be much more than just nice words. In countries where people grow up with a coninuous fear and hatred of a dehumanised other, it might be worth the effort if people would actually sit down for a while, listen to those words, and think them over. For you may blame the US president for not bringing immediate peace to Iraq and Afghanistan - and no, I don't deny the fact that the US are an influential player - but in the end, it's the people there who have to make the difference.

    And yes, I do understand and share your ideal of a prosperous Palestinian state, capital East-Jerusalem, peacefully co-existing next to the state of Israel. But what did, say, Tutu, Al Gore, Aung San Suu Kyi or the Dalai Lama do for the Palestinians? Nothing, of course. Does that mean they didn't deserve the prize? I mean, you can't do everything at the same time. I sure hope Obama can make a positive contribution there - but he is, after all, president of the US, not of Israel. Frankly, if a peace prize was awarded based on achievements in the Holy Land only, right now I couldn't think of anyone who deserves it...

    Let's hope that will change soon!

    Much love from Hanoi.

  6. Dear Aike,

    I actually can write a whole essay to your response. But at least we are agreeing on our disagreement.

    I hope that one day we can meet, eat some Humus and Falafel, and discuss our disagreements and ideas.




  7. I hope so, too!
    Take care! x

  8. Dear Aike,

    I very much enjoyed this blog entry. This is probably what the people in the Nobel Comittee were thinking when they decided on Obama. However I wonder whether this will help Obama accomplish his dreams. So far it seems it has made him and the Nobel Comittee the object of ridicule. I fear that this makes him an easy target for his opponents, the ones that want to make him look like a hollow figure that receives praise and trust without having accomplished anything substantial. Moreover these people will be strengthened in their argument that Europeans are what they to call "naive socialists" who have lost contact with what they call reality. Aren't you worried about the negative repercussions this could have? I am.

    Big hugs,
    G. vd L., windmiller and model train collector

  9. Dear G.,

    Thank you for your reaction. I understand your concern, that it might actually turn out to be counterproductive. In all honesty, I know too little about the dynamics of US domestic politics to be able to say whether you're right, whether this may actually weaken his position, or not. But my guess would be that those people who ridicule him, his political opponents, dislike and ridicule him anyway, and that this prize doesn't really make any significant changes when it comes to his popularity, for the good nor the worse.

    Actually, the fierce opposition he has to deal with nationally proves that something in fact is changing. Let's not forget that most people, anywhere in the world, are conservative, and most people are afraid of any real change. The fierceness of the resistance suggests that he is in fact challenging the status quo.

    Who are his main opponents? Large industries, neo-conservatives, fundamentalists - those who supported Bush, and now see their interests threatened. They don't care about the rest of the world, or about Nobel prizes, anyway. They are responsible for the mess in the Middle East. So if anyone deserves to be ridiculed, it's them. And if there's anyone who is in no position to make any statements about a peace prize, it's them.