I know it’s been a week and a bit, which in the contemporary mode suggests that ancient history has already passed under the bridge since the Nobel Committee announced its decision, but I wanted to comment about Obama’s Prize. I think it’s telling that half the country is outraged that their President is well thought of by the outside world; and there’s a lot of obvious projection going on, both from those who miss their fallen emperor – you, know, the guy who invited people who wanted to kill us to ‘bring it on’ – and from those who think his successor is their ideal version of what a man should be.
Now, for me, President Obama is a pretty representative approximation of what kind of good man could possibly be elected to the Presidency; he seems to have made it there with his soul intact, and you have to empathise with him when he is targeted at the hands of the astonishing double-mindedness of his opponents, whose complaints seem to be as follows: He hasn’t saved the world in his first ten months in office, he hasn’t ended the wrong-headed war his predecessor started eight years ago, he hasn’t disavowed his blackness (which some people appear to want him to do), he’s too smart, etc.
I’ve met a few Nobel Laureates over the years – being on the fringes of the northern Ireland peace process meant that you tended to bump into them from time to time. Between my alma mater and home city, we produced four of them in just over two decades – Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Betty Williams, David Trimble and John Hume. Very few people would dispute that each of them deserved to be so rewarded. Mairead and Betty co-founded the Peace People with the journalist Ciaran McKeown, a truly grass roots mass movement that transformed the streets of Belfast in the mid-1970s into space for non-violent public protest against the use of violence. People mobilised in tens of thousands to make their voices heard, gathered in a movement sparked off by the killing of three of Mairead’s sister’s children. When they were awarded the Nobel, they had not brought peace to the streets of my home town. But they had served as a focal point for people’s hope. Precedents had been set. And although the Peace People movement came under enormous pressure, and was not helped by either local political parties or the British state, it still works in a grass roots way today.
Two decades later, political negotiators drew up a treaty that offered a structure for relationships in northern Ireland that could be used instead of violence. Hume and Trimble, the two avatars of northern Irish Protestant unionism and Catholic nationalism, were recognised by the Nobel committee; their political opponents used this as an opportunity to rant then as well. That was eleven years ago. Both Hume and Trimble have left the northern Irish political stage, and people who hated either or both of them are now in charge of the government built on the agreement they championed.
But – and this really is the heart of why I think the Nobel Committee got it (mostly) right – the totem for the northern Ireland peace process is not the fact that we now have a broadly stable government, that violence has all but disappeared (with awful, but thankfully rare exceptions), that all the major paramilitary organisations have decommissioned their weapons, or begun the process of doing so, that the police are more accountable than ever and have an enviable (albeit imperfect) record on human rights, and that the opportunity to deal with the past without vengeance exists, even though all these things are true. No, the totem for the northern Ireland peace process is that, after decades of using violence or belligerence as a political first resort, people decided that negotiation was not a sign of weakness. Four years of talking got us an agreement. Nine years of still talking got the agreement implemented. In the past, there were years when people were killed for political reasons in northern Ireland every single day. Since 1994, when we started talking, the death toll has reduced to a tragic handful each year. It is undeniable: a vast number of people are alive today because sworn violent enemies talked to each other.
And this is why President Obama may deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Because he is willing to talk first. Now, he has been saddled with a legacy of war and presides over a nation which has grown too fond of a ‘shoot first’ attitude. He cannot easily extricate himself from business as usual. But I agree that the Nobel Committee gave him the award because they want to help him. Complaining that he doesn’t deserve it is both sour grapes, and a misunderstanding of why the Prize is given – sometimes you get it because you’ve done something amazing (Mandela, Mother Teresa, Wangari Maathai, Jose Ramos-Horta), sometimes you get it because you maybe did something that could have been amazing and might have covered a multitude of sins (Henry Kissinger), and sometimes you get it because the Norwegians think you might be something some day. I think President Obama already is something – just take today, for instance. His representatives are talking to Iranian diplomats about diverting their uranium to another country for processing. His predecessor appeared more willing to drop bombs on Iranians than to talk to them; it may only have been the US election cycle that prevented another insane war in the Middle East. Obama’s presidency, on the other hand, is offering a teachable moment to us all; we might learn that scapegoating our leaders ends up delivering only more violence. Alternatively, we might give them a chance to take the high road, and to avoid the mistakes of history by doing what we deeply know, but often deny, to be true: talking is better than fighting. Doing that might mean that we deserve a peace prize one day too.
*Caveat: Because I know some folk might want to take issue with me, let me say this:
1: I don’t think Obama is perfect. He is not the Messiah. He is not the Antichrist either. Neither is George W Bush.
2: There are plenty of areas where I think he is either moving too slowly, or has given no indication that he is going to change some of the wrong directions set by the Bush administration.
3: Obama is not responsible for my choices or behaviour. I hope we can agree to disagree about whether or not he deserves the Peace Prize. But I hope we will not disagree that we both have a responsibility to reduce violence wherever we are, including when we’re having a conversation on a blog.