PARIS – By awarding its Peace Prize for 2009 to Barack Obama, the Nobel Committee took a big risk. Even if Obama is obviously something of a pacifist, the president of the United States leads the world’s most powerful military, one that is still waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq. So, on its face, the choice does not appear to be an obvious one.
Some observers around the world criticized the Nobel Committee for rewarding only lofty rhetoric by anointing Obama as this year’s peace laureate. I believe that this criticism is perverse and inappropriate – and thus dangerous. For it consists in condemning hope as nothing more than ephemeral words.
Yet, in politics, words can be actions. Obama’s speech in Cairo earlier this year contributed, at the very least, to a change in the climate of the relationship between the Muslim world and America. The words that Obama has said to Iran may not yet have borne fruit, but talks with Iran have resumed and the International Atomic Energy Agency will send inspectors to the nuclear plants near Qom that had been secret until last month.
It is also thanks to words – two statements followed by a conversation – exchanged between
Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that a joint program for bilateral nuclear disarmament was initiated. The outcome of this effort is to be submitted to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in the spring of 2010.
Almost everyone knows that the dangers of nuclear proliferation can be reduced, and eventually resolved, only through concerted action by the international community. No country can manage the process on its own. So the step taken by Presidents Obama and Medvedev is essential, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, seeking big cuts in Britain’s nuclear arsenal, has publicly endorsed it.
Despite its silence, there are hints that China views this process with approval. And, of course, the French must reveal their stance on nuclear disarmament. For, in this crucial case, actions need to follow words.
But if the diplomatic future of nuclear disarmament looks promising, such is not the case with the other issues. For example, the dialogue with Iran, and with Muslims in general, remains dependent on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, the persistence of which pollutes dialogue and prevents progress.
Both protagonists in that conflict remain starkly divided. In both Israel and Palestine, political leadership is very weak. The fact that in Israel a parliamentary majority still permits the expansion of settlements – the construction of 200 new housing units was recently authorized, despite a warning from Obama – means that those who would undermine peace remain in action.
In continuing to expand settlements, Israel leaves gradually less and less room for the creation of a viable Palestinian state, which requires a contiguous and unified territory. There is something criminal in the determination of some Israeli forces to destroy this opportunity, and something tragic in the helplessness of the rest of Israeli society to prevent it.
Elie Barnavi, former Israel ambassador in France, has just published a prominent book entitled Today or Perhaps Never ( Aujourd'hui ou peut-être jamais), and sub-titled The Case for an American Peace in the Middle East ( Pour une paix américaine au Proche Orient). His study highlights the overall decline of the situation and the increasing difficulty of reaching a peace settlement. He clings to the hope evoked by Obama, and to the fact that, unlike his two predecessors, Obama did not wait until the last year of his term of office to address the problem.
At the moment, the problem is even more serious, since the suspension of settlement expansion, which is key to any peace talks, is not supported in Israel. As a result, we are in a difficult period, because realizing the hopes expressed by Obama will require increased American pressure on Israel, a stance that is unpopular at home. But if nothing happens, we will inevitably face another failure.
Following that reasoning, Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize came too early, because nothing has, in fact, happened yet. On the other hand, this award strengthens the visibility, authority, and international legitimacy of the American initiative. All is not yet said and done, and success remains possible.
The Nobel Committee has taken a large risk by not rewarding an acknowledged contribution. But that risk may have been worth it, because peace, being hard to achieve, must be nurtured with hope.