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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  1. Uncle Al

    Just what did Obama accomplish and when, even in theory? Yasir Arafat got a Nobel Peace Prize as did Jimmy Carter, Al Gore… all of them bags of useless, destructive flesh. It is as sour a joke as the Literature and Economics Prizes overall. Chemistry was devalued to a scut biology summer project. Award a Physics Prize to string theory or SUSY and the disaster is complete.

    09 Oct 2009, 15:53

  2. Phil Warnell

    Hi Steve,

    An interesting post, in which you examine perhaps the most controversial awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in several years. To be frank if this were the one awarded for physics, chemistry or economics, the objection that its worth has yet to be proven, would certainly be a valid one. However, what is being awarded for here is not the discovery of peace or achieving a greater understanding of it, yet rather the search for peace, which has as of yet neither been attained or maintained, in all of mankind’s recorded history.

    So what is this award supposed to recognize, other than those that believe in and are committed to the search for peace. I think if this is found as considered in being the criteria, Obama represents to be a more worthy recipient than many of his predecessors before, with the exception perhaps of my country’s own Lester B. Person, who was instrumental in forming the United Nation, which was created in the hope it be a instrument of peace and not an actual realization of it.

    Therfore, I would argue that the peace prize is more related to potential, rather than result, coupled with a belief that the world truly has such a potential. In as Obama has publicly acted and stated as being a continuance spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, then I (and many others) see him as a true and worthy recipient. Alfred Nobel was a man whose fortune was made by creating a product found to be good or bad only when its potential was realized. His creation of the prize was in part a result of the guilt and remorse he held about this, with his wish being something be found and attained which when its potential realized only good could be the result. I would ask then, who are the seekers of peace, other than the most worthy to be awarded for sharing his belief and commitment to this goal.



    10 Oct 2009, 20:20

  3. “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.”

    Disgraceful. Many recepients of the Nobel Peace Prize in the past have been controversial figures. Yasser Arafat sharing with Rabin and Peres in ‘93 for the Oslo Accords spring immediately to mind. This recognised the steps they had taken towards peace given the background of the Middle East conflict. Peace is made with enemies, not friends, and will therefore almost by definition involve controversial figures. Avoiding controversy would be lunacy for the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Morgan Tsvangirai, along with past winners Aung San Suu Kyi or the Dalai Lama, have maintained a non-violent struggle against an oppresser. By February 1 when the nominations were closed, Obama had managed to give some nice speeches hoping to create peace in the future, rather like… every other President in history. Since February 1 he has thus far managed to not close Guantanamo, not repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, not signed the anti-landmines or anti-cluster munitions treaties, not managed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons or nuclear states, not created any kind of peace plan in any of the world’s troublespots… and has increased the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan and may well have a “surge” in Afghanistan.

    I hope Obama does manage to deliver all these things and much more, and if worthy he should receive a Nobel Peace Prize for works actually accomplished. Giving the award so early makes achieving these things more difficult due to public opinion, and makes the committee look like fools.

    10 Oct 2009, 20:51

  4. Phil Warnell

    Hi Damien,

    “Giving the award so early makes achieving these things more difficult due to public opinion, and makes the committee look like fools.”

    I would agree that public perception stands at the root of it all. However, I would contend it has us to considered whether the world can continue much longer from the perceptive of a pessimist, rather it be seen as necessary it become that of an optimist. I would ask if the efforts or intentions of those like Gandhi or Martin Luther had not proved to be successful, if this would therefore have them considered as being of lesser value?

    I indeed recognize it has been argued by not only you, yet by many, that those like myself have drank the Koolaid and are no longer cognisant of reality; which could indeed be true. However, I would rather have it be considered I have drank the koolaid and as such still hold to the dream or vision if you will, rather than be forced as Socrates to drink the hemlock, resultant of his critics belief his vision be false. That’s what Obama would refer to as the audacity of hope and I for one am delighted the Nobel committee has shown it having some.



    10 Oct 2009, 21:46

  5. Uncle Al

    Louis Black, “Obama lactates hope.”

    11 Oct 2009, 21:27

  6. amitabha

    Thanks for the interesting blog.

    It would be nice if there was a button that allowed a reader to email a blog post to someone else.

    12 Oct 2009, 07:53

  7. Kay zum Felde


    Obama has so many good and great ideas, and he appears so strong, that he will be able to fulfill at least a lot of them. I think, that is what the nobel committee has been awarded.

    Best Kay

    13 Oct 2009, 16:06

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