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Obama: A New Lester Pearson?

October 13, 2009

Photo by Pete Souza.

Obama contemplates his remarkable award. Photo by Pete Souza.

Is President Obama America’s Lester B. Pearson? That seems to be what Doug Saunders is saying  in this recent piece.  Though I don’t agree with everything Saunders says in this article, in drawing a brief comparison between Obama and the former Canadian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, he does make a worthwhile point about how the Nobel has been awarded in the past, a point that seems forgotten by most in their eagreness to join the media “pile up” to lament Obama’s allegedly undeserved award. That being: the Nobel is not a lifetime achievement award;  it honours actions that “change the way the world functions”, or how “countries engage or publics think about conflicts”.

That might be said of Pearson, but what about Obama?  Is this comparison between Obama and Pearson helpful? 

Pearson was Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs when he helped organize and conceive the UN  “peace force”  to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, but as of 1957, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, there were still questions as to whether any of it would be successful.

Hindsight bias is 20-20, so the cliche goes.  Who would have thought that peacekeeping would become so iconic of United Nations work, and so entrenched within international politics in subsequent decades? Certainly nobody in 1957, though the Nobel committee had hopes. Certainly not Pearson himself, who in his Nobel acceptance speech remarked he did very little to deserve the award; and, what’s more, warned of exaggerating the importance or even effectiveness of his solution:

I do not exaggerate the significance of what has been done. There is no peace in the area. There is no unanimity at the United Nations about the functions and future of this force. It would be futile in a quarrel between, or in opposition to, big powers. But it may have prevented a brush fire becoming an all-consuming blaze at the Suez last year, and it could do so again in similar circumstances in the future.

We made at least a beginning then. If, on that foundation, we do not build something more permanent and stronger, we will once again have ignored realities, rejected opportunities, and betrayed our trust. Will we never learn?

Note the language– a “beginning” to later build upon, a “foundation” upon which to forge something “permanent and stronger”. Yes, the role of peacekeeping in the world may have already reached its apex years ago, but it is a much stronger institution today than 1956, when it was nothing more than an ingenious idea to broker a cease fire between warring factions powered mainly by idealism and hope.  But that is how great things are accomplished.  And it was for this hopeful but thin and uncertain beginning that Pearson was awarded the Nobel Prize.

If Obama’s presidency stands for anything, it might be hope and idealism, though the knock on it nowadays is that it doesn’t stand for much more than that, either.   Even so, Obama has fundamentally altered the direction of U.S. foreign policy, prioritizing nuclear arms reductions, defusing tensions in Russia and Europe by canceling the missile defense system, and engaging with Iran, Russia, China and other countries in strategic new ways.   America being what it is– a super power, hyper-power, or whatever trendy term you want to use– these important changes in policy have  also re-orientated the priorities and direction of international politics.

Alfred Nobel believed the Peace Prize ought to be awarded for “the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the promotion of peace congresses”.  Though Obama may not have defused a specific crisis– yet, who can say that these shifts in U.S. foreign policy have not done more to advance “fraternity among nations” than any other international work in the last year?

Obama’s work, like Pearson’s, was a beginning. A foundation, upon which he, and the world, might build upon in the years ahead. Obama may not, ultimately, be successful in achieving his lofty visions or goals, but that does not mean his work so far is undeserved, or that in working towards those ideals, the world won’t be a better place. Because it will be. And that, friends, was Alfred Nobel’s own lofty vision and hope.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    October 14, 2009 11:57 am

    This is as good a case for Obama’s prize as any I’ve seen, but I’m still decidedly unconvinced. Regarding the quote from Pearson’s acceptance speech, preventing a brushfire from becoming an all-consuming blaze sounds like a pretty significant achievement to me. I wouldn’t agree, either, that idealism and hope had very much to do with Pearson’s solution to the Suez crisis – rather, he found an eminently practical way to forestall a wider conflict that was in no one’s real interests. Obama has done nothing half as substantial, and it’s entirely possible that he never will. If Pearson laid a foundation, Obama has yet to even start digging.

    Anyway, Christopher Hitchens did a good job of putting Obama’s prize in the context of previous awards. And anyone inclined to see a saintly glow around Obama should read this.

    • canworldjon permalink*
      October 14, 2009 9:06 pm

      Ah yes, good ol’ Hitchens– I’ve always appreciated his perspective — and writing — however contrarian he can be, at times.

      Admittedly, Obama’s Nobel is a hard sell. Corwin, you’re right to point out the important differences — still — between Obama and Pearson, including the fact that, at bottom, Pearson did defuse a conflict that could have spread into something big and horrific. Obama has not done that, maybe he never will, but I don’t think that is necessarily the standard for the Nobel Prize. Yes, there have been Peace Prize laureates who have contributed great things to humanity, but others offered a much thinner resume of accomplishments. I mean, Hitchens himself identifies a category for contributions to “cynicism” and “hypocrisy”; if Kissenger and Arafat are worthy, are we to also quibble with Obama, whose actions probably go beyond the accomplishments of several of those winners in the “vague feelings of good will” category?

      Maybe, maybe not. But whatever side of that divide — or chasm — one falls, I don’t think Obama’s Justice Department policies disqualifies him; if pristine or saintly hands were a requirement for the Nobel Prize, it would be missing many of its Laureates.

      • corsullivan permalink*
        October 15, 2009 1:54 pm

        I mean, Hitchens himself identifies a category for contributions to “cynicism” and “hypocrisy”; if Kissenger and Arafat are worthy, are we to also quibble with Obama, whose actions probably go beyond the accomplishments of several of those winners in the “vague feelings of good will” category?

        The way I see it, there are two possible perspectives. I actually don’t have such a huge problem with Arafat, but if you consider people like Kissinger “worthy” of a Nobel then you have to concede that the prize itself is pretty meaningless. In that case, Obama got saddled with a trinket of little value, and the fanfare over the award has been an embarrassment to him in itself.

        The other perspective, which is closer to my own, is that some of the Nobel commitee’s decisions have been better than others. In other words, there have been worthy winners like Pearson, and unworthy winners like Kissinger. I’ve probably made my view of Obama’s position on this continuum more than clear, and I won’t belabour it any further!

  2. Perez Christina permalink
    October 13, 2009 4:02 pm

    interesting !

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