The Nobel Peace Prize award to Barack Obama has provoked widely diverse reactions. I noted in Australia appropriate polite congratulations from Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, but jarringly rude mockery from Alexander Downer.
Internationally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel applauded the award, saying: “Obama has set a new tone in the world”. Former prize-winners the Dalai Lama and Shimon Peres were also pleased.
On the other hand, there were bitter denunciations from the Taliban, obviously. The Republican Right, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, Foxnews and the Wall Street Journal opposed the award, arguing that Obama hadn't achieved anything to deserve it: it was a prize for mere aspiration. In Israel, there was cynicism from all sides.
Yet the Norwegian Nobel committee explained its rationale clearly. Obama has done more this year for world peace than any other possible contender:
… through his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples ... Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position ... Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts ... Obama [has] captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future.
I can comfortably support all these arguments. For comparable reasons, US Time Magazine nine months ago made Obama their Person of the Year.
So why in the US Republican Right does Obama remain a polarising figure of hate and derision? He is anathema to the Right, precisely because he rejects the idea of the US imposing its interests, views and values on the world by superior force.
The Right's argument that Obama hasn't achieved anything yet is essentially a smokescreen for their bile at knowing that Obama got this international award precisely because, truly, he is “not Bush” - that Obama has launched an international healing, after the great damage worked by his predecessor. These critics cannot bear the world's relief and thanks that Obama is not Bush. This humiliates them, and they are rationalising their rage.
There are areas of concrete peacemaking achievement already. In US-Russian relations, the provocative NATO missile shield project in Central Europe has been cancelled, the Georgian adventure set to rest, and the Russian government has visibly warmed to the West in response. Nuclear disarmament negotiations are moving again.
On the other great world security crisis - disruptive climate change - China's President Hu Jintao dramatically pledged in the US last month to cut China's carbon dioxide emissions relative to GDP by a notable margin. I believe China's rapid move to the forefront of international climate negotiations was encouraged by purposeful high-level US bilateral diplomacy this year.
In the Middle East, at least the cruel Israeli bombardment and blockading of Gaza has ceased.
Even on the world's “small” security crises - not small for people suffering from them - the Obama style of extending a hand of friendship to the clenched fist of adversaries is reaping rewards. Following the US decision to re-engage with Burma's military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi is again playing a more active political role in the search for a political settlement there. These things are connected.
In diplomacy, the distinction between words and action, aspiration and achievement, is subtle - too subtle for some. If well-chosen inspirational language (like Obama's highly symbolic and allusive speech in Cairo, directed to the Arab world) improves the climate of negotiation in long-standing angry disputes, this is an achievement in itself. I find the claim that Obama hasn't achieved anything yet in international peacemaking a caricature of reality. He has already achieved much, and he brings hope for more.
At another level, what do Papal Encyclicals achieve? Does their moral guidance actually make anyone do anything? Yet no reasonable person could argue that Papal Encyclicals don't have impact. To exhort to good action, to speak a credible language of moral inspiration and hope to the world, is an achievement in itself. Thank goodness we have an American President who is prepared to do so - and to try to back up these aspirations with US assets, appropriately deployed.
Afghanistan remains my biggest problem with Obama. I grieve the pointless sacrifice of the lives of Afghanis and the intervention forces. I pray that Obama is preparing an honourable exit strategy, which will have to bring Taliban elements into government; that he will find a way through his Afghanistan dilemma, and quickly.