Obama: A New Lester Pearson?
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.