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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why Obama won the prize

Like everyone else, I was quite astonished yesterday morning when I went on-line and discovered that Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Fortunately, the topic I had planned on writing about today has become even more relevant because of that decision. Upon reflection, I think I understand the committee's choice, and indeed, am inclined to believe that it reflects a sound appreciation on its part of the turning point at which the world finds itself. This is especially hard for Americans to grasp, I would suggest, because the spectrum of opinion in America is so radically different from opinion in every other advanced industrial country, as well as in much of the third world. Indeed, when Rush Limbaugh commented yesterday that "conservatives" like himself found themselves in agreement with the Taliban that Obama did not deserve the prize, he was saying something surprisingly profound. As usual, I shall try to make my point with the help of an analogy, this one from 100 years ago.

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.


Judith Ellis said...

This is a most excellent historical and honest perspective. Thank you so very much.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Bravo, Prof. Kaiser. Even I was initially hornswoggled by the US media (though bewilderment rather than skepticism was at play).

But Bertrand Badie, my favorite IR scholar, had an instant op-ed up at Le Monde, explaining that the Nobel Committee wished to bolster President Obama's moral authority against the Republican Party's counteroffensive to delegitimize him. Of course, you have provided localization and your own invaluable perspective to the story.

Ken Albert said...

When I saw your brief list of credentials in the bogus E-mail I thought to myself, no way this is legit, that's how I ended up here. I disagree! Your explanation is very well written and follows a logical progression but I can't help but feel that you inverted the scientific method and put together pieces to find the theory you wanted to be true.
Here is an analogy for you hopefully you can relate. Have you ever walked through a bar and some meatball bumps into you and then says "why the f... did you bump into me?". The meatball wants to fight and even if you had Neville Chamberlain himself standing next to you, you better swing because the meatball definitely will. He can't help it it's in his nature. I think you are too smart and logical to comprehend the thinking of our enemy. They hate us! It is Jihad! They want to kill us all! We are the devil to them (due to our godless (liberal)society). It is not because of Bush, I'm sure they respect him more than Obama, because THEY are conservatives. Extreme, insane, radical conservatives.

Anonymous said...

David , Once again you have put the issue at hand in good perspective . Of course after the buffoon and war monger representing the USA for the past 8 years it was hard not to recognize that a whole new intelligent attitude is now present in the American leadership . Just think a peace agreement between Turkey and Armenia brokered by Obama/Clinton . Removal of missles in Eastern Europe by both the West (read USA) and by Russia . Peaceful solutions to complex problems is now the order of the day .

Unknown said...

Thank you, Dr. Kaiser, for putting our current situation in historical perspective. If you have researched 9/11 and the lead up to the Afghan war and the Iraq war, there must be some serious questions in your mind regarding the behavior of our "leaders" from 2000 to 2008, including the elections during that period, which may be the darkest era in our history, with the exception of the Civil War.
As for the Arab world hating us, who could blame them, and all we appear to be doing there is perpetuating the hatred. I don't believe the story that was sold to the public about 9/11. Too many people with expertise in their fields of endeavor have come forward to challenge the findings of the 9/11 Commission. The mere fact that NORAD was "unavailable" at the time is enough for me to question the official story. Then there's the cleanup of the site, which was a crime scene. Then, the short sales before the fact.
However, some people will not even consider the idea that someone other than Bin Laden and Al Queda attacked our country, I think because that's what the media, especially FOX, has "hard sold" them.
The Nobel Prize Committee has sent a powerful message by awarding its highest honor to our President. I understand his reluctance to get stuck in the Gordian knot of the actions of the past administration, but I believe these were criminal acts...the torture, the illegal war(s), the horror of Katrina, 9/11 itself, and the theft. President Obama should allow a new, comprehensive investigation. To allow these acts to go unpunished diminishes the moral basis of our nation's laws.


How naive! Do you really think that if we forge our swords into plow shears that the world will do likewise? In the past, as now, we and the rest of the world are facing
not so much a political struggle as
a religious struggle. Once again we have the "Christians" of the world against an increasingly radical Muslim population around the world, except the Muslims will unhesitatingly use nuclear weapons against us once they get their hands on them. Obama's stance only encourages them since they sense that he does not have any intention of ever using nuclear weapons against them.
As England found out, you can not negotiate with someone whose intention is to dominate others to do their bidding. Hitler heard England's position and knew that they would not stand in his way.
"Peace through strength" is not just a slogan, it's a way of life in today's world.

wmmbb said...

Thanks for making the militarists argument, as if peace were not possible, or even desirable, or the primary condition for a decent human life. George Orwell, in 1984 acutely observed that "War is Peace" - but he foresaw only the Inner Party could unpack that conundrum. So who is naive?

Lisa said...

I think the Nobel Prize is an honor for the President, he was very gracious about accepting it.

JimPysht said...

Accepted your very impressive argument, based on history, until realizing that you did not factor in a very important element: This is the U.S.'s 1st war with a very large religious component by the enemy.
They want to kill us (infidels). Simple as that.
Treating this as anything else is simply naive.

KNi said...

I enjoy reading your blogs, but also different views people bring up in their comments. I am European who has lived here more 20years (still with heavy accent that can be "heard" in writing too, sorry about it).

This is one of those difficult topics to candidly dicuss here in USA, perhaps because at least one part of the problem (if not a root cause) is Israel (called holy country by many people here)and also perhaps because of other intrusive actions of Western countries in the region of Middle East during past decades. Israel is of course well known to everybody but the history of the region is not so well known (not even by myself).

However, I find it very naive somebody to say that they (muslims) do it only because they are so bad, and we (americans) happen to be number one targets, because we are so good.

I don't believe that Al Qaida movement is even close to 100 % for religion. I tend to believe that in most part the real cause for it is to gain regional power using recent history as a justification for it. I am sure that they have also some other "good" (of course from their own point of view) causes.
Terrorism, I believe, is one of their tactics and it is not anybodys idealogy. Religion, which I think is their fake cause, is actually an instrument to get masses of people mobilized into the movement , keep them loyally there and, in this case as a bonus, get them give their lives for the movement. USA and some of it's allies, with their oil interest and willingness to meddle in regions affairs is their biggest obstacle and, therefore, is their biggest enemy.

Nancy Jane Simpson said...

There are different kinds of peace and different kinds of war. Slavery was war against the African American. Poverty is a war against the underclass. And, there is a war against the uninsured or under-insured American. I am 58 and have stage four leukemia. My bone marrow is packed with cancer. My eyes can no longer move in the eye orb without pain. I have no partner, so I had no choice but to continue working. I was a counselor with a master's degree in social work, who worked in a prison with male felons. I loved my job, however, in the end I could barely drag myself to work, sometimes, literally passed out in my office with fatigue. It became dangerous to work. And, yet, if I did not work, I would have no health coverage.

Finally, the day came I just could not do it and I took disability. It was a state job and the state did not pay into social security but had its own system called OPERS. Ohio Retirement System. My disability was 1,500 a month. I am not a consumerist and I could live on that...barely...but I could. Then, to my total shock I was told that I would have to purchase my health insurance and that it would cost 608 dollars to match what I had when I was working. I could not get Medicaid because my disability amount was too great coupled with a dab of equity in my home. I can't pay the 608 and live. So, when my COBRA runs out in six months I will be 58 years of age and have no access to ANY heath insurance. I am so scared it is ridiculous. The stress of this on top of the leukemia is horrific. And, I am perhaps more afraid of not having any medical assistance than I am of the leukemia itself. I say all this to say that The Nobel Peace Prize that President Obama won is more muti-faceted than world peace alone. It is the peace he seeks to make with the poor of the earth, the rogue nations, and those people like me who have no access to health coverage, that makes him a worthy recipient.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis of the importance of ObL and Bush in this new dispiriting century. The only thing you left out is the bizarro symbiosis they enjoyed: Osama single-handedly saved Bush the Lesser's political career. In return, the Idiot Prince turned a spectacular terrorist stunt into a full-blown strategic victory for bin Laden.

I'm among those who think that Obama's award is premature. I sympathize with the symbolic intent, an expression of the hope that his election represents a major change. But even is he were the messiah incarnate, Obama wouldn't be able to steer banana republic America from the rocks in less than year.

However, I'm more convinced every week that one of Obama's biggest failures is his refusal to take on the right wing directly, in an **explicitly** confrontational manner. He shouldn't even be talking to Republicans, let alone seek "bipartisanship" or "consensus" or any of that twaddle. If he mentions them at all, it should be with mockery and scorn. The only thing contemporary republicans understand is the back of the hand. what's more, they are cowards.

You watch -- Obama is going to be the latest Dem to squander opportunity through timidity.
-- sglover

It's all a sideshow anyway -- the Peace Prize has always had little real importance.


Jim Barnes said...

Dr. Kaiser,

I enjoyed your comments but I take issue with most of them. They strike me as being written, primarily, from a revisionist point of view. That I think is the main problem with most of what is being taught in America's schools today.

Mr. Obama won the prize because he isn't George Bush, plain and simple. Two weeks into his administration is much too short a time for any intelligent referendum on either him or his policies.

As far as why Bush did what he did and how it was seen and accepted in the world community, I think it is important to put both questions into the context of the time and not revisionist history. We had been savagely attacked, he had intelligence that led him and ALL of Congress to believe that Iraq was involved on numerous levels and that Afghanistan was the "Promised Land" for our enemies and he acted as he, with the ADVICE AND CONSENT of the Senate, deemed necessary. It must be kept in mind that George Bush, indeed like Obama, is President of the United States and not the elected leader of the world at large.

I believe that an American President who takes an oath to protect and defend the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic, owes duty to the citizens of the United States first and foremost and if the world doesn't like it that is too bad. The next time they need our help, perhaps they won't get it.

Wayne said...

I am shocked you graduated from Harvard. I thought all professors and students from Harvard were liberal, anti-American, anti-God, anti-family, and communist.
Thank God you proved me wrong.
Be blessed!

Anonymous said...

Jim Barnes wrote:

As far as why Bush did what he did and how it was seen and accepted in the world community, I think it is important to put both questions into the context of the time and not revisionist history. We had been savagely attacked, he had intelligence that led him and ALL of Congress to believe that Iraq was involved on numerous levels and that Afghanistan was the "Promised Land" for our enemies and he acted as he, with the ADVICE AND CONSENT of the Senate, deemed necessary. It must be kept in mind that George Bush, indeed like Obama, is President of the United States and not the elected leader of the world at large.

I would say that yours is the revisionist take. A discerning citizen had many reasons to doubt the case for the Iraq adventure AT THE TIME. Since then, there's been ample evidence that the "intelligence" supporting the invasion was, in the most charitable view, severely skewed to support a fore-ordained conclusion. Iraq war apologists love to sweep Feith's "Team B" disinfo operations under the rug, but the facts are there. In fact, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence & Research assessments (produced by regional experts reading open literature) undercut the arguments for war, and proved to be much more prescient about how the war would go than anything coming out of the other agencies. But they were routinely ignored, both in the government and by our fabulous "profession" of journalism.

It's true that Congress went along with the fraud, but that was just an example of major institutional failure. Hardly any Senators (six of them, if memory serves) ever bothered to even leaf through intelligence summaries. You could argue that they panicked, and gave the Bush/Cheney regime too much leeway. My own sense is that they didn't give the whole thing enough attention to even qualify as panic. I think that for most congresscreatures, the only real concern was shucking responsibility altogether, and foisting ALL strategic/diplomatic matters off on the executive branch and its "experts".

Aside from their immediate costs (which are immense enough themselves), the most ominous thing about our latest round of wars is that they reveal a deep rot in all our national institutions. Our political system can no longer grapple with, or even really imagine, external reality as it really is. Instead, we mainly battle our own neurotic demons.
-- sglover

JOHN BOYLE said...

Dr. Kaiser,
I received that e-mail. I agreed with it and forwaded it to many, many people. And while apparently you disown it, it WAS written by someone. May I ask you a few questions?

1) How did it make you feel when PRESIDENT Obama bowed to a Saudi King? (Not shown much, why?)
2) Do you feel the Nobel Prize to Al Gore was appropriate, given the fact he grants no interviews and has been debunked by thousands of scientists?
3) Is showmanship over substance make one worthy to become a Nobel laureate?
4) Do other countries, especially their leaders, do what is in their countries best interest?
5) Should ours?
6) Do you think a man Who's influences have come from terrorists (Ayers) and race baiters (Wright) have the depth or ability to love the USA as it is?
7) If no, should a man who obviously hates America, who hasent ran a Subway be Commander in Chief?
Someone wrote that e-mail. Like apeasment, America can be wrong and while I hope my President does well I do not see him doing any worse. When the economy implodes and the borders come down, remember those words. Because there IS something in the air. I doubt it to be R vs. D, Lib vs. Con. , No it is us vs. them... And I am not really sure who them is, but I think I know who them isnt. Do you?

Unknown said...

Nancy Jane, my heart goes out to you. I understand that Germany has the cutting edge in cancer treatment. Meanwhile, I suggest that you begin a regimen of raw apple cider vinegar and local honey and that you consume as many raw vegetables as possible. You can do this by juicing or making smoothies with yogurt, ice and blended fruits and vegetables.
Please don't lose hope. I will pray for your recovery.

Unknown said...

I believe that if you hit me and then prepare to hit me again, that you probably will.

I am then faced with two choices: {1}Plead with you not to hit me again, or (2)Make sure that you CANNOT hit me again.

I do not like being hit. Does anyone else out there?

Violence is a part of the human condition. Always has been and probably always will be. The best we can do is try to defend ourselves against it.

Trying to obtain peace without being prepared war is a guideline for defeat.

For Obama to earn his prize he must be prepared for war.

JamieM said...

Another moron w/ a phd from harvard. I would not be so quick to emulate the high marginal tax rates of europe. based on the "history" of the most recent century before the present one, europe would be the worst role model (im sure you remember hitler, mussolini, stalin now they are mired in eurosocialism and a return to nationalism) Please read (i know you can) hayek, friedman, von mises et al. Keynes was an idiot. my degrees are from penn state, geneva college, and duquesne university, not holy harvard.