The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award its annual peace prize to President Barack Obama has left a lot of people, even his admirers, slack-jawed. Some perspective might help. The use of flattery as a means of nudging the powerful has a long history. “Praise and counsel have a common aspect,” said Aristotle.
A notorious example was the attempt by the Roman politician and intellectual are Lucius Annaeus Seneca to set Nero on the straight and narrow when the latter became emperor at age 16. Seneca addressed an extended essay to his former pupil entitled On Clemency in which he obsequiously invested Nero with all the qualities of a great leader in hopes that the young autocrat might take the hint. It may have worked for a time. The first five years of Nero’s reign were generally remembered as something of a golden age. Things went downhill after he murdered his mother.
Former president Thabo Mbeki often attempted to use much the same technique (or so it seemed to me), congratulating not terribly deserving people — Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, for example — as a way of rebuking them or at least of suggesting how they ought to behave. Whether he had any more success than Seneca is open to debate. On occasion, possibly. The way he applauded Namibian President Sam Nujoma into respecting his country’s constitutional term limits – when Nujoma quite clearly had other ideas — was masterful.
I am not for a moment putting Obama in the same category as Nero or Mugabe, but merely observing that there is method, and precedent, in the Nobel Committee’s seeming eccentricity. The committee said it was recognising Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” and especially his “work for a world without nuclear weapons”. In much the same way, Seneca told the teenage Nero that he had already surpassed Augustus in some respects, notwithstanding the fact that Augustus ruled for over 40 years and was pretty much responsible for creating the Pax Romana.
In flattering/counselling Obama, the Nobelistas presumably also intended to have a similar effect on the people who elected him. Indeed that may have been the primary intention. The prize could be seen as a way of rewarding American voters for repudiating the worldview of the younger George Bush, with its own echoes of imperial Rome. The phrase “let them hate me, so long as they fear me” has been attributed to a number of eminently arrogant (and mostly self-destructive) Romans. It was made for the curled lips of former vice president Dick Cheney.
Whether Obama lives up to the Nobel committee’s hopes depends to a large extent on the American electorate, or a working majority thereof, proving itself equally worthy and buying into the vision. That in turn depends on the electorate sharing Obama’s understanding of America’s diminished place in the world’s pecking order and of the real threat to its security America faces from continuing to be as reflexively hated as it has come to be over the past decade.
The America that the Nobel committee has, in effect, pre-emptively congratulated America for becoming is an America willing to play nicely in United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions generally, pay its UN bills and join a UN Human Rights Council that includes a number of member governments that cannot strictly be said to rule with the consent of the governed; it is an America ready to respect China’s sensitivities on the subject of the Dalai Lama but also ready to concede that the Palestinians have a point; it is an America prepared to argue on behalf of the principles underlying its democracy but not, as per John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, to “bear any burden” in their defence; in short, it is a chastened, post-imperial, get-along- to- go-along America.
This new America, as imagined by the Nobel committee, has much to be said for it, but not without certain qualifiers. As much as one might welcome its new perspective on the Middle East or, more broadly, its recognition that unilateral action in a densely interconnected world is likely to be futile or counter-productive, one may well come to miss its robust voice in defence of basic freedoms and rights, including those of women.
For good or ill, America is unlikely to resolve itself easily into a direction that would fulfil the Nobel committee’s hopes. As a number of commentators have observed, the committee may well have made it more difficult, politically, for Obama to live up to its expectations. When he has to make tough calls on, say, climate change or Iran’s nuclear program, it will be asked, meretriciously, to be sure, but not without effect, whether Obama feels himself more beholden to five Norwegians appointed by their parliament or Storting than to the American people and their representatives in Congress.
America’s position in the world is changing to an extent most Americans have yet to understand, let alone become comfortable with. Obama has to manage this change at both the global and domestic level. The Prize may perhaps enhances his prestige internationally, but to live up to international expectation, he has to have the votes at home. It is unclear how susceptible those votes are to nudging via Norwegian flattery.