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October 09, 2009

Congratulations Obama! The Postmodern Presidency Comes to Oslo

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize has just been awarded to US President Barack Obama for his efforts at improving international diplomacy on many fronts, especially his attempts at reducing nuclear proliferation. Singling out this specific contribution, which may well stand the test of time (especially vis-à-vis Russia), reflects the Cold War vintage of the committee, since it is not clear to me that people born after, say, 1980 see nuclear annihilation as quite the global threat that older generations did – and the youngsters may be right on this point.

I say ‘postmodern presidency’ because the late Jean Baudrillard would relish the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to someone who really hasn’t brokered any peace at all – though Obama has certainly tried on many fronts and acted like a man of peace. Perhaps he is the 'anticipatory peacemaker'! The politician as simulacrum! Peace never looked so good – so maybe the look will do as grounds for prize-worthiness when the reality is way too grim! Sitting here in Boston, I learn that in a CNN-commissioned poll of viewers, Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader of Zimbabwe, had been the preferred choice for the prize. Given Tsvangirai’s actual record to date, I can see why Obama’s potential might appear more attractive.

But there is also comic timing in Obama’s award. This week’s New Statesman, the UK’s historic centre-left weekly magazine of politics and ideas sports a cover containing a photograph of Obama morphing into GW Bush, reflecting its dismay at Obama’s apparent, albeit dithering, willingness to commit more troops into Afghanistan, even though the war there appears both endless and pointless. Generally speaking, UK military commitments mirror US ones these days, so we tend to treat the US President as our own Commander-in-Chief. Whether the New Statesman is ultimately proved prescient or cheap will probably not hurt sales, since they’ve now unwittingly turned themselves into a talking point.

Of course, Obama is being assaulted, in an increasingly vicious way, over his national health plan. I very much support the plan – as I did when Hilary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and countless others have proposed it before him. The hostility to the plan – which must rank as amongst the most mystifying features of US politics to foreigners – reflects the extent to which ‘Live Free or Die’ is really ingrained in the American psyche. At one level, it reflects a very positive view of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called ‘self-reliance’ that is predicated on the view that the US is the ultimate Land of Opportunity, in which health and wealth await those willing to put in a bit of effort. Unfortunately, this normative vision – however attractive – is never subject to a reality check from those who now worry that their taxes might benefit scroungers.

In all this, Obama is mainly saved by the fact that his opponents don’t have their act together – and Obama is the master of grace under pressure. This, I believe, reflects a larger background point: Because it is far from clear what really drives Obama’s political ambition, it is hard to find a way of getting him to sell out. ‘Selling out’ is always about finding the point when your mark distinguishes his own personal interests from those on whose behalf he would presume to speak, and then discreetly appealing to the personal interests alone. If they last long enough, politicians normally sell out because their vanity blows their cover – they are made to reveal that their own interests are really more important than those they’re speaking for – and they’ve become tired of maintaining the deception: Selling out = Cashing out.

Here’s a homework assignment: Given this definition of ‘selling out’, what sort of people will never sell out? Hint: Hegel would love them. And if Obama turns out to be one of them, then he definitely deserves the Nobel Prize!

As far as the Nobel Prize Committee is concerned, it would be a mistake to think that it is any more prone to wishful thinking these days than in the past. Its awards over the past century are strewn with purveyors of wishful thinking who at the time appeared quite plausible candidates for the ‘wave of the future’. Consider the last sitting US President to receive the award, Woodrow Wilson. He was praised for brokering the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War and helping to establish the League of Nations. All of this was done against the backdrop of a US that Wilson had to drag into that war kicking and screaming, which then rewarded him by failing to join to the League, once established, and booting the Democrats out of office until FDR – a dozen years and a Great Depression later. Let’s hope that Obama’s prize doesn’t follow that precedent! But no denying it: Wilson was a well-spoken man of good intentions much more popular abroad than at home.

Come to think of it: Didn’t Jimmy Carter get the Nobel Peace Prize too?


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