Friday, October 09, 2009

Some More Thoughts on Obama's Nobel Peace Prize

To follow up on what Sarah said regarding the announcement of Obama's Peace Prize, I think a lot of her points are valid. Like the rest of the world, I was initially surprised. In face, my confusion may have outdone most others - I woke up to NPR this morning hearing the following: "Today, the following announcement was made in Sweden [long pause, during which I'm thinking, within the first 30 seconds of waking up, "Please say Philip Roth has finally gotten the Nobel Prize in Literature"]," only to find that Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like just about everybody both left and right, my initial reaction (now within the first 60 seconds of waking up) was, "Really?"

However, I apparently seem to think this makes more sense than a lot of people (both left and right). I understand the arguments against it from both sides (well, I don't understand the total vitriol that's already coming from the right, but I expect it): it's too early, it's just a "here's a prize for not being Bush," "what's left if he actually does accomplish something?," "He has two wars going on and is about to escalate Afghanistan - how is that peace?" All of this makes sense to me, and I'd share those feelings, if I thought this was really just about Barack Obama the man's accomplishments.

But I don't. Not exactly, anyways.

This really does seem to be an award for a particular diplomatic approach that embraces more than multi-lateral talks and openness (though it certainly offers that, as well). Maybe others have forgotten, or maybe I've overstated its importance, but Bush's "cowboy diplomacy" approach was so appalling from an international relations standpoint and in terms of all reason and respect to the world, that Obama really does mark a major shift. Sure, he has failed at some important domestic policies (thus far, though to all those saying "a peace prize after only 9 months?? But he's failed at health care and reforms!", I'd remind them, "well, yes - but as you yourself admit, it's only been 9 months"). We have focused on this a lot, and rightfully so. But I think in doing so, there's been a (again logical) focus on the domestic side, what between the health care and the economy and don't ask/don't tell.

But from the international standpoint, I really can't emphasize enough how much a shift Obama is. He hasn't caved to pushes for more aggression against Iran, and even his apparently-possible escalation in Afghanistan seems to be actually well-reasoned and considered; even if you don't agree with it, it's not like he's just diving in, consequences be damned. And let's not forget - America was closer than it likes to think to electing a guy who joked we should "bomb bomb bomb, bomb Iran."

And while you can and should argue that in many ways, Obama's policies reflect a return to Bill Clinton's, I don't think that holds in the case of international relations. Obama has proven himself much more open and reasoned in his policy making than even Clinton did. It's about more than just being willing to talk to Chavez face-to-face at a meeting of the OAS, or have Bill Clinton pull some tricky negotiations to release hostages in North Korea, or find a path that the entire international community is willing to follow in dealing with Iran. Indeed, one simply has to look at Honduras since June. Obama has taken an approach to Latin American coups that the U.S. has never seen before - an open, non-partisan condemnation of what was clearly an illegal removal of a president, combined with a refusal to get directly involved by sending troops in. The U.S. had done this any number of times before, and every time, it was wrong to do so. For once, Obama relied on diplomacy, and even while condemning the actions, has refused to directly interfere in Honduras. Sure, he's had the State department take measures to restrict the aid and cash flow to Honduras from the U.S., but that's within his prerogative as president, all the while respecting Honduran sovereignty.

That sounds simple, unimportant; but from a history where the U.S. basically took every opportunity to meddle in, interfere with, and even directly undo democratic processes in Latin America from 1846 to 2002, this is a major, major shift. And it's representative of Obama's policies thus far - respect, doing what's within his power without overstepping the sovereignty of others, all the while working to maintain global relations. Honduras isn't the reason; it's symptomatic of the broader, subtle, but major shifts in how the U.S. is forging a new path in its diplomatic history under Obama.

In that regard, I think he's more deserving of the award than many. Is it too soon? I think that's a fair argument. Is it confusing? A bit (even after having awakened after a cup of coffee). Is there room for improvement? Of course - show me one person who's already perfect. That said, I think this is in part about Obama, and the (what I think is very real) change he brings to American foreign policy. But to focus on it just being about him is to miss the larger point, I think; it's also about embracing a major change in diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the world at large, a change that the U.S. initiated under the leadership of a particular man. And I'm fine with that.