the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 May 19


The Nobel Peace Prize is a prestigious award, for no particularly-good reason. It is the choice of a special commission of the Norwegian parliament, and if it were presented as such ― “Guatemalan activist awarded a million dollars by a special commission of the Norwegian parliament” ― it would make the news annually as a curiosity and nothing more. The choice of Jimmy Carter, a deserving fellow to be sure, was revealed this year to be as much a geopolitical slap at George Bush as a recognition of Carter’s ceaseless efforts for his personal vision of peace, making the process even more of a curiosity and less of an event that the rest of us should care about ― “US president censured through the award of a million dollars to his predecessor by a special commission of the Norwegian parliament”. That may say something about peace, but I cannot readily fathom what.

Democracy is all a popularity contest, and within democratic culture such contests flourish at all levels. Elections for public office most approximate popular will, and thus illustrate that the popular will is hardly to be universally commended. It can be thoughtless, uninformed, petty, egoistic, belligerent, or all at once. Elections are important, though, both in that they determine the exercise of real power, and that they stand as a bulwark against the emergence of worse power, the selective rule of a few. Beauty contests, like homecoming and the Oscars, are supposedly special awards for merit; they not only can be but generally are thoughtless, uninformed, petty, egoistic, and even belligerent. They have the added quirk of taking place annually, so that deserving candidates compete not against a standard but against other candidates in their particular year, and could be the second-most-deserving candidate in half a century, and lose to the first by coincidence of timing. That is supposing, of course, that merit genuinely plays a role in homecoming or the Oscars, which the evidence of all past awards argues against. The winners of beauty contests are usually beautiful, true, but they are not, despite common pretensions, going to do much for world peace.

The Peace Prize is exactly like homecoming or the Oscars, if one does not share the values prevalent in Norway in a given year. The Academy Awards are dominant in recognition because they are given by the dominant players in the film industry, the movie establishment in the United States. The Peace Prize is more like supposing that the prettiest insider girl at West Lafayette High School every year should be the world’s paragon of all youthful womanhood. The Norwegians are certainly involved but hardly dominant in the peace industry, and I am not sure why the rest of us all care so much what they think on the subject.

The prize has been awarded for any number of reasons, peace only being among them. It clearly helps to be at some remove from any physical violence, though the standards for that are low, and the greater the violence, the more likely and the more quickly the Norwegians will celebrate its ending, as in the awarding of the 1973 prize to Le Duc Tho and ― does this require a comment? ― Henry Kissinger. That formula of actually making peace with one’s enemy is a good bet to see both parties recognized, which is why a number of other individuals whose careers have been not at all peaceful have received the award.

Campaigners against tyranny are often recognized, a cause near to my heart, but obviously not those who campaign using violence, which is why the peaceful Desmond Tutu won the prize but the militant Nelson Mandela did not, not while he was in prison. He did finally make it to Oslo, but only when some white man finally decided it was time to do the right thing, and then the two of them, the man who had lived his life in prison and the pampered Boer who let him out, shared the prize. Three years earlier, Mikhail Gorbachev won the prize all for himself, another member of the ruling class who ultimately consented to do only some of what was right, and used force until the end to maintain his empire.

Whether we are concerned about peace or about ending tyranny, it would be hard to find anyone who has done as much in the last twelve months on either score as George Bush and Tony Blair, who were nominated too late by a Norwegian parliamentarian who didn’t expect this any more than the rest of us want it. Still, on two counts Bush and Blair have done a great deal for peace, by ending thirty-five years of horrendous state violence, and by preventing future wars through the demonstration that a threat made by the United Nations has genuine deterrent behind it. And yet Bush is a partisan of neither peace nor justice.

If we want to recognize someone for whom doing the right thing is both a genuine act and a political struggle, we should look to Ranil Wickramasinghe, the prime minister of Sri Lanka. He has been unrelenting in his efforts to find a solution to the divide between Sinhalese and Tamil, working against the understandable reluctance of the Tamils to negotiate, and the utterly unjustified zeal of his president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, for continued Sinhalese dominance. Kumaratunga lost an eye to the conflict, so her belligerence may be understandable as well. She has apparently been inclined to seek an eye in payment, and then to proceed to an exchange of teeth; but that seems unlikely to advance the cause of peace. And anything short of full self-determination will not be justice.

As if that mattered, though. In exchange for Spain’s help with the Iraq war, the US has agreed to ban Batasuna, a Basque separatist party that had achieved moderate electoral success and therefore represented the democratic will of a sizable fraction of Basques. But separatism is taboo in international politics (except in Palestine), and the crusade of José María Aznar and the otherwise-admirable Baltasar Garzón against self-determination persists at a low level.

Up from that, Russian parliamentarian Sergei Yushenkov was killed recently amid his campaign to prove that state security was responsible for the apartment bombings blamed on Chechen militants and used as an excuse for Vladimir Putin’s personal war in Chechnya. We don’t know that Putin killed Yushenkov or ordered the bombings. But we do know that he rigged a referendum in Chechnya in favor of continued Russian rule. Said Putin: “The referendum showed at last that Chechens consider themselves an unalienable part of a united multi-ethnic Russian nation.” It isn’t that Putin doesn’t understand reality; it is that he doesn’t care whether the rest of the world does.

Two years ago Ehud Barak offered the Palestinian Arabs their own state and shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. It was an enormous political risk, and only peace would have saved his political career. Yasser Arafat, a previous Nobel peace laureate, turned him down. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon went to the Temple Mount, the Palestinian Arabs began another intifada, and the Israelis dumped Barak for Sharon in elections. This has left us Arafat and Sharon as the elected leaders of the two sides, and it would be hard to imagine two more intransigent negotiators, or two more in thrall to the extremists of suicide bombings and colonization. Arafat has been muscled aside for Abu Mazen. Can Sharon not be muscled aside for Amram Mitzna, or Shimon Peres, or Ehud Barak? We don’t need a roadmap; we need two moderately-rational people who will cut a deal. Two states. Land for peace. There is nothing mysterious about it. There is nothing we didn’t know a quarter century ago, when Israel made peace with Egypt.

So who is Megawati Sukarnoputri? Is she Kumaratunga, or Aznar, or Putin, or Sharon? Well, in fact, it is not even clear that she is in charge in Indonesia. To judge by the number of people held accountable for the Army-sanctioned bloodbath in East Timor a few years ago, designed to intimidate the Timorese into a perpetual union with Jakarta, no one controls the Indonesian army. What we know is that Sukarno was no Aung San, and Megawati is no Aung San Suu Kyi. And we know that Aceh is under martial law today, and the Indonesian army has begun a full military effort to force Aceh to submit to perpetual union with Jakarta.

It would have been foolish to expect a wave of negative reactions this morning to Indonesia’s invasion of Aceh, even though consistency might have demanded it. Where are the US and Britain, standing for freedom and democracy? Where are France and Russia, opposing unilateral acts of aggression? Where are the millions of protesters, who feel that war could have been avoided and is never the solution? Much of Aceh was sovereign, but it wasn’t “sovereign”, was still recognized as being a part of Indonesia. But its rule by Jakarta has only the very recent past to justify it; Aceh has a prior history of independence, a distinct local culture, and even, strangely, lots of fossil fuel. No blood for oil? That is just so much talk, apparently. We would rather draw up ineffectual roadmaps to take us where any reasonable person already knows we should be. We would rather get back to our regular jobs and our regular geopolitical concerns. We would rather wait for Megawati to come to her senses, after ten more years of war and thousands of additional deaths, and then give her an award. Or, better yet, have our conscience, in the form of a special commission of the Norwegian parliament, do it for us. Oslo is the Hollywood of the soul.


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