Friday, October 9, 2009

Barack Obama, Kenneth Wherry and the Nobel Prize

I don't want to be yet another humbug, rain-on-the-parade blogger bashing the choice of President Barack Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nonetheless: I believe that the President, like most of Washington, is naive about the world's foreign policy issues. He's intellectually sharp, he's well-read, but he is also naive.

It's more complex than that, of course; President Obama's presentation is actually something of a paradox. His words are wonderful, displaying a sense of how the world works, honoring the fact that cultures are truly different from each other in values and not only in language and dress.

But, at the same time, his actions in the Middle East, in the Persian Gulf, in Russia, in China, in North Korea, betray an inability to translate that understanding into action. He acts with the whole world as though they were Westerners, offering them the same incentives and disincentives one would offer a Westerner and anticipating a Westerner's reaction, without any sensitivity to the nuances involved.

* Example: Promises of economic incentives don't move someone whose highest value is his honor and self-respect (China, and trade protectionism; not to mention the fact that the US needs China in a major way. See The Economist here.).

* Example: Incremental assistance doesn't gain the support of people who, because of their cultural values, will settle for nothing less than 100% of the pie (Hamas; see Khaled Meshaal's June 2009 interview with Time's Joe Klein here).

* Example: Threats of economic sanctions don't impress governments who believe their citizens are best-served by leaders who will not bend - and whose own citizens parrot the same (Iran; see CNN's pre-election report here).

* Example: Arguments from law are meaningless to nations who believe the law, or at least its application, is wrong (Israel - see Obama's reference to "the occupation" in his Cairo speech).

The President's practical naivete reminds me of the same trait in Senator Kenneth Wherry, Republican of Nebraska, who said in 1940, "With Gd’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”

See David Brinkley's Washington Goes to War for more examples of pre-WWII Washington's provincialism. A lot of it rings true in Washington today.

If the Nobel is meant to reward good intentions, then I agree - they found someone who is well-intentioned. But I think the standard should not be desire, but success.


  1. I agree. It should not be intentions that get you a Nobel Peace Prize but actions and results. Otherwise the prize is meaningless. If no one earns that prize in any given year, don't give it out.

  2. rule #1 of consulting - don't project your values etc. onto your client (my restatement-try looking at the world through his eyes)

    btw (not saying if it applies here)
    self righteous/assured people often have great trouble doing this