Saturday, October 10, 2009


Let’s leave aside the issue of whether President Obama did or did not deserve the Nobel Peace and look instead at what the Norwegian Nobel Committee said when it awarded him that prize. Much of the discussion has focused on the Committee’s apparent decision to consider Obama’s aspirations as much as - or more than - his actual accomplishments. There is much room for debate about whether such a decision is good or bad for Obama, good or bad for the prestige of the Prize, unprecedented or not. However what interests me far more in the Committee’s press release is contained in this paragraph (emphasis mine):

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

I sincerely hope that the Committee is mistaken about the foundation of Obama's diplomacy. Obama was elected to lead the United States and his responsibility is to do the job the voters of the United States entrusted to him. It is not his job to "lead the world". It is not his job to make decisions on the basis of what people in other countries value. It is not his job to put the interests of other countries - or “the world’s population” - above the interests of his own country. It is not his job to make the future better for all the peoples of the world. The job of the President of the United States is to work ceaselessly for the best interests of the United States.

It may well be that the best interests of the United States are served by more co-operation with other countries rather than less, by giving a little here to get a little there. Thus it is perfectly appropriate to consider the values and attitudes of the rest of the world when deciding on the strategy and tactics necessary to achieve American interests. If America’s interests are best served by insuring that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons and the President believes he needs assistance from other countries to achieve that, then making concessions to those countries makes perfect sense even if those concessions in and of themselves might not be in America’s best interests.

However, the values and attitudes of people and countries outside the United States should be given no weight whatsoever in determining what the best interests of the United States actually are. The President must at all times have a clear and unshakable sense of America’s best interests and make decisions accordingly - even if those decisions are condemned by citizens of every other country in the world.

When I first read the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s statement I though it was pretty nervy for a country that owes much of its wealth to fossil fuels and continues to hunt whales. These hardly seem like “attitudes and values shared by the majority of the world’s population.” A more careful reading however made it clear that the Committee was advocating adherence to global majority opinion only for “those who are to lead the world”. This makes perfect sense. To put it as bluntly as possible, nothing most countries do will have much impact on the rest of the world. Other nations don’t much care whether such countries act in their own best interest or not. The United States is one of the exceptions. It is quite rational for Norway to attempt to convince the United States to act in the best interests of the rest of the world rather than in its own best interest. It will be a disaster if the attempt succeeds.

As I was beginning to think about this post, I read a piece by Peggy Noonan. Urging a more public and energetic debate on the right path in Afghanistan, Noonan says (emphasis mine):

So far, oddly, most of the debate over Afghanistan has taken place among journalists and foreign-policy professionals. All power to them: They've been fighting it out on op-ed pages and in journals for months now, in many cases with a moral seriousness, good faith, and sense of protectiveness toward the interests of the United States that is, actually, moving.

To the Norwegian Nobel Committee that sense of protectiveness is misplaced; they believe rather than the United States’ debate over what to do in Afghanistan should be concerned with a sense of protectiveness toward the interests of the “world’s population”. I disagree and I sincerely hope President Obama does also.

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