Saturday, October 10, 2009

On Obama's Nobel Peace Prize

I think a lot of the commentary on Obama's peace prize is well off the mark. The major theme, from the left and the right, from the major pundits and my facebook friends, is that Obama hasn't done enough to deserve this prize. After all, Obama has only been President for a few months, still presides over two wars, one of which is escalating, and, while he has made some gestures towards international diplomacy on several fronts, the critics left and right are fond of saying that he has only given a few good speeches, and hasn't actually done much.

I think this is analysis is wrong-headed for two reasons. First, the Nobel Peace Prize is as much about encouraging and supporting agents of peaceful change as it is about recognizing already accomplished deeds. Several commentators have quoted the statement of former Nobel Committee chair Francis Sejersted:
The prize [...] is not only for past achievement. [...] The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account [because] Nobel wanted the prize to have political effects. Awarding a peace prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act.
In other words, the Nobel Committee is, by confering this award, endorsing and encouraging Obama's efforts at international diplomacy, especially in the Middle East and regardign nuclear nonproliferation. They like the direction Obama is heading, and they want him both to succeed in the endeavors he has undertaken and to take his diplomacy further. Whether or not this success and expansion of diplomacy takes place, the Nobel Committee has done the only thing they can to make it so. That is both a legitimate use of the prize and a fairly taditional one.

Ronald Krebs, the author of the Foreign Policy essay I linked to above, lumps aspirational bestowals of the prize in with bestowals upon intranational dissidents and activists in order to conclude:
When the Nobel Peace Prize rewards past accomplishments, it is to be welcomed -- not because it changes the world, but because it celebrates and reaffirms liberal ideals. But in the increasingly frequent cases in which it is bestowed for actors' aspirations and in which it seeks to promote democratic political change, winners beware.
First of all, I don't see anything especially liberal about Alfred Nobel's charge that the prize be awarded "to 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." Modern liberalism has never been especially opposed to standing armies (republicans and communists are the ones who worried about those), and international fraternity and peace congresses are the purview of no particular political philosophy. But whatever. The more important things to note are that 1) the award to Obama seems to fit Nobel's intention quite well (except for that abolition or reduction of standing armies thing), and 2) all of Krebs' data regarding the perverse effect of the prize pertains to the promotion of democratic political change, not to aspirational awards per se.

This brings me to the second reason the dominant take is so wrongheaded. Without a doubt Obama's biggest accomplishments to date have been speeches, especially the Cairo speech. This is what Obama does -- he talks, and he listens to others talking, and he talks in such a way that his audience knows he has listened. Far from being negligible, this is actually a very big deal. I have mentioned this before; Obama is good at politics because he is good at talking to people who are not like him. Not to go completely Arendtian, but speaking is the substance of political action. There is no divide between "giving speeches" and "doing things," and those who think there is reveal themselves to have a technocratic, antipolitical streak.

This is why diplomacy is interesting -- in a world full of nation states given over largely to technocratic administration, one of the only spaces given over to political action is the diplomatic arena. In his "Critique of Violence," Walter Benjamin indicated "the conference, considered as a technique of civil agreement," as one of the only venues for the deployment of purely discursive means of agreement, unalloyed with any violence. Although it would be a stretch to say that any conference with the executive of the US, holder of more military might than the rest of the world combined, is unalloyed with violence, it remains true that diplomacy, giving rise as it does to no law, and employing the whole range of linguistic communication, seems more political and less violent than anything else in the world right now. And if the reemergence of this power, after the last eight years in which diplomacy seemed to vanish from the face of the earth, does not merit a Nobel Peace Prize, I'm not sure what does.