Friday, 27 May 2016

Obama and Peace. And what comes next

Do you remember when Barack Obama won the Nobel peace prize?

It was in October 2009. His inauguration as US President had taken place the previous January. He’d barely got his feet under the table, had hardly begun to feel his way into the job, had yet to achieve more than the already considerable feat of getting elected into that office despite being partly black.

“What’s the peace prize committee up to?” most of us wondered, “usually they honour people who’ve actually made some major contribution to peace. Are they issuing prizes for potential now, then?”

Seven years on, it’s the prize committee that looks smart, we their sceptical critics who look foolish. Insight, they showed, and above all foresight. Obama has done far more for peace, and above all far less for war, than has become the norm for Presidents since the end of the Second World War.

It’s true he wanted to go blundering into Syria, missiles blazing, but he had the good sense to be talked out of that. He kept his intervention in Libya to a minimum. He did all he could to pull troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and resisted the temptation to put more in, able to rise above the simplistic pursuit of quick fixes by military means for which Dubya Bush – and, indeed, Tony Blair – so naively fell.

He’s also shown an ability to break free from a toxic mindset. Most nations have fixations with certain issues on which they find it practically impossible to change their view. In the US, the most significant seem to be a conviction that no black can be fully the equal of a white – indeed, for many, that blacks can’t come close to equality, that force is the best approach to foreign policy, and that the widespread possession of guns protects society, instead of being the principal contributing factor to a world-leading murder rate.

Obama has shown the first of these obsessions to be wholly false, just by being who he is. The third he has never ceased to combat, even in these, the dying months of his presidency. And for the second, he has shown that the US can do better by befriending some of its enemies, without denying disagreements, than by maintaining an aggressive stance towards them.

He became the first sitting US President to visit Cuba since the revolution. The US may have a long list of grievances against Havana, and many may even be justified, but an open door leads to more hope of progress than a closed one – if only because you can talk through it, negotiate through it, even argue through it.

He recently visited Vietnam too. There’s plenty wrong in that country, above all the repression of opposition to the regime and all the usual paraphernalia of autocracy: censorship, excessive surveillance, denial of human rights. But the longest war the US has fought, and the first it has lost, achieved absolutely nothing but death and destruction in Vietnam. It’s good to see other attitudes being reinforced.

Of course, there’s a paradox: Obama’s gesture of peace towards Vietnam took the form of authorising the sale of arms to the nation… Still, it was a gesture that would cement a growing friendship, and suggests a growing trust.

Finally, Obama became the first serving US President to visit Hiroshima and the Peace Park, monument to the first of only two times that atomic weapons have ever been used. We need to remember, when we cry about the weapons of mass destruction, that the US alone has used them in anger, killing over 140,000 people immediately in Hiroshima (others died later of diseases caused by the bomb). To set some perspective, 2014 was a peak year for terrorist deaths – they reached nearly 33,000 around the world.

Barack Obama with Japanese Prime Minister Shinz┼Ź Abe
with the A-Bomb dome in the background
The Peace Park is one of the most moving places I have ever visited. It maintains a powerful sense of peace, but also of sorrow, even of awe, at what was done there. A prayer bell stands as a symbol of the horror that any faith must have feel at the atrocity booming mournfully when another visitor sounds it; nearby are glass cases full of paper cranes (the birds, not the construction plant – don’t be silly) in memory, initially, of the girl who started making them in the ultimately vain hope that it would prevent her death from leukaemia, and now in memory of all the victims of war; and standing over all, visible again and again as one wanders the paths, grim and awe-inspiring is the A-bomb dome, the strange building that somehow remained standing though choked with rubble (which has been left where it fell) while all the people inside it were killed.

Now Obama has been there, as the official representative of the nation that wreaked the destruction. And in that hallowed place, he spoke of his hope for a world that would ultimately free itself of nuclear weapons. Not probably in his lifetime, he told us, but eventually, as long as we keep pushing towards that goal.

Oh, yes, he’s a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He hadn’t shown it in his actions back then. But he has completely justified the faith of the Prize Committee.

Now we face the prospect of his successor being Donald Trump. The man not of the open door, but of the wall between peoples. The man who wants to make American great again, with a subtext of violence, domination, intolerance.

I don’t think he’ll be bothering the Nobel Peace Prize for their attention at all.


Mark said...

It's not Donald Trump who wants the people, it's the people who want Donald Trump.
They know who and why they vote for, don't they ?

David Beeson said...

I don't think they do. I believe they look at Trump and see what they wish to see, or what he wishes to project, and the reality is far more dangerous than they imagine.