Why Obama won the prize
The first President to win the Nobel prize was, of course, Theodore Roosevelt, who received it in 1906 in recognition of having mediated peace between the Russians and the Japanese, after two years of very costly war. The second was Woodrow Wilson, whom I have had a chance to study more closely in recent years, and whose career reveals a lot about how the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world has changed over the last 100 years. Wilson when he assumed office held a view, very popular among Americans not only then but for the next 25 years or so, that the world's problems stemmed from the failure of nations to act according to established laws and rules. He and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, were at the forefront of a movement to conclude arbitration treaties with various powers to provide an alternative means of settling disputes. That movement, however, had not caught on among the major European powers, who were still relying on a mix of diplomacy, alliances, and larger military establishments to secure their interests. In 1914 diplomacy failed and the First World War broke out.
Two nations, for different reasons, unleashed that war. First, Austria-Hungary--faced with a long-term threat to its existence from Serbia and other new states, which included the state-sponsored Serbian terrorism that killed the heir to the throne at Sarajevo--adopted the exact same policy that the Bush Administration embraced in 2001 after 9/11. Because the Serbian state sheltered terrorists, it had to be removed by force. The Bush Administration implemented this policy both in Afghanistan, where it at least had some plausibility, and in Iraq, where it did not. In the latter case, the Bush Administration, like Vienna in 1914, submitted an ultimatum which was clearly designed to be rejected to provide a pretext for war, and disregarded the attempts of the recipient of the ultimatum to comply. Germany, meanwhile, seized upon the Austro-Hungarian-Serbian crisis as a good chance for a trial of strength with France, Russia, and if necessary Britain, and encouraged the Austrians to proceed, blocking diplomatic attempts to find a solution and unleashing a world war. Wilson was appalled, and spent two and one-half heroic years trying to find a peaceful solution to the war. In his last attempt, his great "peace without victory" speech in January 1917, he carefully avoided any judgment of the rights and wrongs of the conflict, calling for a peace based upon impartial principles. Neither side was interested. The British bitterly reproached him for what we now call "moral equivalence," and the Germans decided on unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to force Britain's surrender, even though they knew that it would force Wilson into the war.
It is hard to say how much freedom of action Wilson had in 1917, but I have become convinced that his decision to enter the war was a mistake. Tragically, Wilson's estimate of the situation was right: Europe desperately needed a compromise peace, in which neither side was as yet seriously interested. Such a peace might conceivably have come about had we stayed out of the war; there was no chance that it would do so after our entry, because the Allies would trust in their increasingly superior resources. After the Armistice--one which left Germany at the Allies' mercy--Wilson tried but inevitably failed to write his principles of impartiality into the Versailles Treaty. But traditional authority had already collapsed all over central and eastern Europe--most notably in Germany and in Russia--eventually allowing totalitarian movements to take over, and unleashing an even bigger war. Still, Wilson in 1919 became the second sitting President to receive the prize.
During the last 64 years, the United States and its allies have managed, remarkably, to make Wilson's dreams reality among the industrialized nations of the world. Under a succession of Democratic and Republican Administrations from Truman through Clinton, the richer nations came together, confronted Communism, and eventually saw it fall. After three generations of peace among them, their military establishments--event our own--have fallen to historically very low levels. No wars have taken place within advanced nations in all that time. While the Third World has been the scene of terrible conflicts, virtually the entire population of the advanced nations today has lived their life untouched by war.
The Nobel Committee, it seems to me, awarded its prize to President Obama because of its concern over the trends of the last nine years. Two new elements transformed the world situation in 2001, with disastrous consequences. They were, respectively, Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda on the one hand, and the conservative Republican Administration of George W. Bush on the other. What is confusing Americans today is that while the world recognizes both of them and the ideas and strategies they represented as very serious dangers, the United States does not.
Last month, at the ninth anniversary of 9/11, I saw several commentaries arguing that Bin Laden had been a failure. They were wrong. Bin Laden, along with George W. Bush, is to date the most influential figure of the new century. I have become increasingly convinced that we have never really understood what Bin Laden was trying to do, or what his real goals are. He is not really very interested, I now believe, in what happens in the United States or even in Europe. For decades he has been fighting a civil war within the Muslim world, most notably in his native Saudi Arabia, where he hates the government partly because of its association with our own. 9/11 was an attempt, I think, to provoke the United States into direct intervention in the region, because that would provide a focal point for extremist resentment and further tend to discredit our allies there. The Bush Administration's decision to invade Afghanistan and then Iraq played into his hands, all the more so because the United States lacked sufficient forces to do either job effectively. But those decisions also represented a decisive change in American foreign policy, one that threatened the whole postwar consensus in which the world had thrived.
As I have said here many times, the decision to invade Iraq, in particular, was a repudiation of all the principles of international law for which the United States had stood, at least in theory, since Wilson. The Bush Administration's National Security strategy embraced international anarchy, by claiming the right to overthrow any regime that might develop weapons which we did not think they should have. We should not have been surprised that it received almost no international support, with Britain alone among advanced industrial countries supporting it. Since 1945 the United States had been the leading supporter of international organizations; now, under Bush, they became impediments that stood in the way of what we judged we had to do. (Last night Rachel Maddow, in an excellent feature on the prize, ran a clip of John Bolton explaining that the United States government had no interest in the United Nations except to the extent that it could promote American objectives.) Bush also extended the anarchic philosophy to our ally Israel, by declaring that Israel would keep any territory that it had settled and wanted to keep in a final peace agreement. He declared, and implemented, a policy of indefinitely detaining and torturing captives and denying them any legal recourse, in violation of numerous laws and treaties which the United States had either passed or signed and ratified. And, of course, prodded by Dick Cheney, he spent about six years threatening Iran with war if it did not desist from its nuclear program.
It is, of course, perhaps the greatest difference between the United States on the one hand and Europe and Northeast Asia on the other, that they have experienced first hand the consequences of a philosophy of international anarchy, as practiced beginning in the 1930s by Japan and Germany, while we have not. The Second World War left them destroyed and destitute while raising us to new pinnacles of prosperity and power. And thus, their commitment to an orderly world has been much stronger, and remains so--partly because the aftermath of the war lasted so much longer in those countries than here, as well. The Nobel Committee, in my opinion, was reacting to signs that the United States was indeed getting back on track before it was too late.
They were not a moment too soon. The last year has shown just how difficult it will be to reverse the damage the Bush Administration did. Although we are slowly exiting in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has gotten much worse, and threatens to spill over into Pakistan. Iran has made considerable nuclear progress. President Obama tried, and in effect, to withdraw the critical concession Bush made to the Israeli government in order to promote peace. And the President is disinclined to treat the torture and detention policies of the Bush Administration as crimes. Yet the President has shown by both word and deed that he believes in a different world and a different foreign policy. His speeches, like Wilson's have inspired the world. And although the media have underplayed it, the Iranian agreement to allow Russia to enrich its uranium is an absolutely critical concession for the whole non-proliferation effort. It is, indeed, exactly the solution proposed by Graham Allison in his book, Nuclear Terrorism. The prize will undoubtedly give a boost to the President's broader goal of working towards the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The decision not to station useless anti-ballistic missiles in the heart of Europe reversed another disastrous step, one which had begun to undermine the peaceful structure of post-cold war Europe. (How many Americans realize that the Russians, in retaliation, denounced a conventional forces treaty that kept their troops away from the border?)
The reason, I think, that all this is hard to understand here in the United States, is that conservative Republican positions, which the rest of the world fears and abhors, are regarded here as mainstream. "The prize quickly loomed as a potential political liability — perhaps more burden than glory — for Mr. Obama," said today's New York Times. "Republicans contended that he had won more for his star power and oratorical skills than for his actual achievements, and even some Democrats privately questioned whether he deserved it." Yes, sadly, a large percentage of the American population--and probably a larger percentage of our punditry--still believes that unrestrained force and disregard for law are the solutions to the problems we face in the world. An entire media complex, including a whole television network and 90% of the talk radio industry, will decry the award. (No totalitarian movement ever had such a media presence before it seized power.) And thus, in the long run, both the hopes of the Nobel Committee and of the President himself depend on the development of a new American consensus--the kind of consensus that Wilson failed to develop on behalf of the League of Nations, but that Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower managed to build, first on behalf of intervention against the Japanese and Germans and then on behalf of the Cold War.
The world has voted. The rest is now up to us.