OPINION: GLOBAL VIEW
OCTOBER 14, 2009
A Perfect Nobel Pick
By BRET STEPHENShttp://online.wsj.com/article/
Pop quiz: What do Bertha von Suttner, Henri La Fontaine, Ludwig Quidde, Norman Angell, Arthur Henderson, Eisaku Sato, Alva Myrdal and Joseph Rotblat have in common?
Answer: Barack Obama.
If you're drawing blanks on most of these names, don't be hard on yourself: They're just some of the worthies of yesteryear who were favored with a Nobel Peace Prize before disappearing into the footnotes of history.
On the other hand, if you're among those who think Mr. Obama's Nobel was misjudged and premature, not to say absurd, then you really know nothing about the values and thinking that have informed a century of prize giving. Far from being an aberrant choice, President Obama was the ideal one, Scandinavianally speaking.
The peace Nobel is a much misunderstood prize. With the exception of a few really grotesque picks (Le Duc Tho, Rigoberta Menchú, Yasser Arafat), a few inspired ones (Carl von Ossietzky, Norman Borlaug, Andrei Sakharov, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, Aung San Suu Kyi) and some worthy if obvious ones (Martin Luther King, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk), most of the prize winners draw from the obscure ranks of the sorts of people the late Oriana Fallaci liked to call "the Goodists."
Who are the Goodists? They are the people who believe all conflict stems from avoidable misunderstanding. Who think that the world's evils spring from technologies, systems, complexes (as in "military-industrial") and everything else except from the hearts of men, where love abides. Who mistake wishes for possibilities. Who put a higher premium on their own moral intentions than on the efficacy of their actions. Who champion education as the solution, whatever the problem. Above all, the Goodists are the people who like to be seen to be good.
Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler, who won the Peace Prize in 1931, was a Goodist. In 1910 he wrote that "to suppose that men and women into whose intellectual and moral instruction and upbuilding have gone the glories of the world's philosophy and art and poetry and religion . . . are to fly at each others' throats to ravage, to kill, in the hope of somehow establishing thereby truth and right and justice is to suppose the universe to be stood upon its apex."
The First World War, which began four years later, rendered a less charitable judgment on the benefits of moral and intellectual instruction. Yet Butler later became a leading campaigner for the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war as "an instrument of national policy." This monument to hope, which won U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg a Nobel in 1929 (France's Aristide Briand had already won it in 1926 for the equally feckless Locarno Pact), was immediately ratified by dozens of countries, including Japan—which invaded Manchuria in 1931; and Italy—which invaded Abyssinia in 1935; and Germany—which invaded Poland in 1939.
Characteristically, the Nobel Committee awarded no Peace Prizes for most of the Second World War: not to Franklin Roosevelt for turning America into an arsenal for democracy; not to Winston Churchill for rallying Britain against the Nazi onslaught; not to Charles de Gaulle for keeping the flame of a free France alive; not to the U.S. Army Rangers for scaling the heights of Pointe du Hoc on a June morning in 1944; not to Douglas MacArthur for turning Japan into a country at peace with itself and its neighbors.
These were the soldiers and statesmen who did more than anyone else to assure the survival of freedom in the 20th century. Being Goodists, however, the Nobel Committee chose instead to lavish its honors on people like the wan New England pacifist Emily Greene Balch (in 1946), the tedious British disarmament obsessive Philip Noel-Baker (1959) and the Irish antinuclear campaigner and Lenin Prize Winner Seán MacBride (1974).
These names don't exactly spring to mind as having made a lasting and genuine contribution to world peace. Nor, one suspects, will history lavish its highest honors on Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Wangari Maathai, Mohamed ElBaradei, Al Gore or Martti Ahtisaari, to name some of this decade's winners. They are merely the Frank Kelloggs and Seán MacBrides of the future.
Which brings us, at last, to this year's prize winner.
Typical of the laments about Mr. Obama's Nobel is that he's done nothing yet to deserve it. But what, really, did most of the other Goodists do before they won their prizes? Mr. Obama, at least, got himself elected president, the first man to do so on explicitly Goodist terms: hope, change, diplomacy, disarmament, internationalism. He is, so to speak, the son Alfred Nobel never had (minus the dynamite fortune), the best and most significant spokesman for everything the Peace Prize has stood for these 108 years.
So let there be no doubt that the Nobel Committee did well in choosing Mr. Obama. What this portends for the kind of peace and security that has been bequeathed to us by the exertions of such non-Nobelists as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan is another question.
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