October 13, 2009
Nobel DynamiteBy Joseph A. Morris
It's not about Barack Obama.
It's about the United States of America and its role in history and in the world.
The unambiguous message of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of the Storting, Norway's parliament, is candidly stated in the public announcement of the Prize. It is the dream of a world in which the role of the United States of America in all respects is vastly diminished.
Mr. Obama remains what he has been throughout his remarkable political career: An exponent of certain "values and attitudes" and, more, a living symbol of them. Those who share those "values and attitudes" recognize them immediately. For nearly everyone else they drift by, vague, barely perceptible, lost in the radiance of the individual man's personality and his myth.
The Peace Prize Committee gets it. In honoring Barack Obama they mean to honor the "concept" that he represents. If it stimulates the honoree to do more to advance that concept, so much the better, but that is not the main point.
The old men of Oslo fervently hope that they are heralding a new reality. It is not Barack Obama, per se, but the emergence of a "new American": Unexceptional, no longer revolutionary, conforming, instead, in the words of the Prize Committee's announcement, to the "values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population".
The American tradition of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison is one of rejection of "values and attitudes" that have shackled most of the world's people throughout most of history, and that continue to do so to this day.
Our tradition is a paradox, of course, that of the "conservative revolution", for behind the American Founders stands a long and ancient tradition of our own, from Biblical and classical antiquity through the evolution of the common law to the thought of Locke, Smith, and Burke. The paradox at the heart of our tradition celebrates the free individual as a member of an organic civil society.
But it is a paradox that works. Those, beginning with the Americans themselves, who do the hard work of understanding and living this tradition have proved that they can build societies that are, at once, free, rich, generous, tolerant, principled, and decent, leaving others seemingly in history's dust.
We of that tradition see ourselves as apostles and defenders of liberty. Old men in Teheran see us as atheists and libertines. Old men in Beijing see us as marketeers and materialists. Old men in Oslo see us as unrefined "cowboys".
These groupings of men, whether or not chronologically old, represent old orders that America has challenged from the beginning. At least superficially, they do not have a lot in common with each other, except one thing: They know that the American Idea is, and since 1776 has been, their joint, several, and ultimate enemy.
The world's tyrants, thugs, and airy experts have mocked, despised, and feared the American Experiment since its birth. They have been much frustrated, defeated, and galled by America's global preeminence over the last century.
They almost certainly do not see themselves as I have characterized them. They may even perceive themselves as somewhat conservative, the defenders of their respective old and legitimate orders.
The men of the Prize Committee recur, respectfully, to the will of Alfred Nobel, where they find that he directed the Storting to bestow the award upon "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
How could they not award the prize to Mr. Obama? Set aside what it is that he actually seeks to accomplish - if he even knows. Barack Obama is widely perceived in the world as determined to achieve the abolition or reduction of not one, but of two, of the world's most formidable -- and most reviled -- standing armies: Those of the United States of America and of the State of Israel.
This use of the Peace Prize as a political weapon against the United States is not new.
Long gone are the days when recipients were the likes of Lech Walensa (1983), Mother Teresa (1979), Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (1978), Andrei Sakharov (1975), Martin Luther King (1964), George Marshall (1953), Albert Schweitzer (1952), Charles G. Dawes, himself a Chicagoan and a former Vice President of the United States (1925), and former President Theodore Roosevelt, who negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War (1909). That they all actually did something is beside the point. Rather, to one degree or another, American or not, they all represented some principle tied to the American Idea.
Instead, the modern crop of Peace Prize-winners, even when they have been Americans, were chosen as conscious rebukes to the United States and American "exceptionalism": Yasser Arafat (1994), Jimmy Carter (2002), Al Gore (2007), Kofi Annan (2001), Mohamed Al-Baradei (2005), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005), and even the United Nations (2001) itself.
The American Idea - a republic, e pluribus unum, of self-governing people, built upon the bedrock of limited government and the rule of law, in the civic life of which race, religion, ethnicity, origin, and class mean nothing, and in the private life of which they can mean as much or as little as people freely choose - is hateful to the "concept" of Oslo and therefore to the men of Oslo.
That's the message of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
Through our history, the success and survival of the American Experiment have depended on the approval of no potentates, pundits, philosopher-kings, or peoples chained to the old orders. They have resented us for it, but they have been able to do nothing about it, because America's fate was in the hands of the American people, and the Americans knew, understood, treasured, and defended their heritage of constitutional liberty.
Until now. Are Americans still revolutionaries, free and brave, determined to go our own way, the benighted "values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population" be damned?
Do we still "yearn to breathe free"? Or have we sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, of the cradle-to-grave "security" that is promised, in varying visions, by those old men in power in Oslo, Teheran, and Beijing?
This is not about Mr. Obama. It is about us.
Joseph A. Morris is a Chicago lawyer. He served under President Reagan as the Chief of Staff and General Counsel of the U.S. Information Agency, as a delegate to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and as Assistant Attorney General.