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Obama's Prize

  • Jay Tolson

President Barack Obama said he is "humbled" by the award.

President Barack Obama said he is "humbled" by the award.

"What has he done to deserve it?”

That was the refrain taken up by detractors, including the opposition U.S. Republican National Committee, almost from the moment it was announced that President Barack Obama had won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

Even many of his supporters had reservations: Couldn't the prize committee have waited until the end of the first administration, or at least until after his first full year in office? Why not wait to see to what he achieves?

Conservatives in the West already judge Obama's foreign policy initiatives as a threat to security and lasting peace. They see his thrust toward respectful engagement with unsavory regimes as wishful thinking, if not outright appeasement.

After all, they say, resetting relations with Russia has apparently achieved nothing more than the abandonment of a planned missile-defense system in Central Europe. And they note that the status quo continues in Georgia, where two breakaway regions are now securely enfolded in Russia's ursine embrace.

They also point to Iran, where a U.S. show of respect has done little to diminish the regime's brutality or steer it decisively away from the pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.

And what's the point of making nice with China, many ask, if it requires putting off a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the world's steadiest champion of peace and human dignity?

Critics on the left point to what they see as broken promises, among them the escalating war in Afghanistan and feeble efforts to secure peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. To them, Obama's promise of "change you can believe in" rings as hollow on the world stage as it does in his own nation, where his attempts to reform a broken health-care system continue to flounder.

But before the raspberries threaten to drown out the hurrahs -- and there have been many of the latter from around the world -- a moment of disinterested reflection might suggest at least one good reason Obama deserves the honor.

Honor, in fact, has everything to do with it.

Honor, recognition, and respect: both self-respect and the respect of others. Big, hollow words, some might say.


But think back to what many still consider the defining essay on post-Cold War optimism, Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?"

In "The End of History and the Last Man," the book that expanded that essay, Fukuyama wrote about the relentless threat to the attainment of a global liberal order where democracy and free markets prevail.

That threat is from "angry young men," the militant and sometimes violent champions of the masses who feel excluded from the blessings of the new world order.

Using the Greek word, "thymos," which he translated as "something like an innate human sense of justice," Fukuyama talked about the abiding human need both for self-respect and the respect of one's tribe or nation.

It was this need, he argued, that would pose the greatest challenge to global stability.

The opportunities afforded by freedom and markets can, through competition and the animal spirits of capitalism, lead to a temporary widening of social divisions.

That, in turn, can heighten tensions between winners and losers -- whether individuals or nations or both. Those left out or left behind will feel not only the pinch of material want but also the dishonor of failure.

Such insults sting all the more keenly in a world where the traditional supports of family, community, and custom are being shattered by the forces of rapid change.

What Obama has brought to the forefront of international political discourse is a frank acknowledgement of the power of "thymos."

As someone who grew up partly in the developing world, he is keenly aware of the fragility of peoples and cultures passing through the creative destruction of globalization.

And his experience of having lived at both extremes of the globalized world has endowed him with a sensitivity that is not merely intellectual. It is at the core of his human and political nature, and a large reason for his success as a voice of moderation and mediation. The Nobel Committee called him no less than "the world's leading spokesman."

Obama's awareness of the power of "thymos" drives the rhetoric and even some of the substance of his foreign policy. It lies at the heart of his Cairo address to the Muslim communities of the world, which is possibly his greatest rhetorical achievement on the international stage to date.

By showing respect for the Muslim faith and acknowledging the merit of many Muslim grievances, Obama could call on the House of Islam to attend to its own considerable internal disorder without sounding condescending.

His more substantive politics of respectful engagement have elicited more uncertain results.

It remains to be seen whether pursuing a reset of relations with Russia or remaining silent about repressive or rights-abusing regimes will help promote peace or effect a change of behavior.

Equally uncertain are the prospects for ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Obama himself thinks it's far too early to assess his success or failure. But a hand extended in respectful recognition of the Other is no small step step toward a more peaceful world.

And though the true value of this effort can be determined only by the response, the gesture itself deserves recognition.

Jay Tolson is the director of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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