Pulverizing a Hard Truth
By John Taylor; 2009 Dec 13, Masa'il 02, 166 BE
"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflicts in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified." (President Obama, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. The day after the speech it was the quote of the day for the New York Times.)
This truth, if it be such, is hard indeed. The ice caps are melting and sea levels rising, but this truth remains immovable and unquestioned by those with real power. Yet there lies behind it an even harder truth: as long as the lion's share of the world's wealth is squandered on weaponry to defend nations from one another and, failing that excuse, from terrorists, there will never be enough money to retool, de-carbonize and defend our planet from the hydra's heads that threaten it from all sides. As long as this hard truth is unbroken, the Nobel Peace Prize, or any talk of peace at all, will be an empty sham. Until we break down such stumbling blocks to world government in our minds, there will be no hope for Kyoto, for Copenhagen, or ultimately for any of us.
Somehow we must soften and break the world's hard, ugly truths before we break our heads on them.
A week before Obama's speech, a well-known historian, James Bradley, wrote an insightful editorial in the NY Times describing what was going on behind the scenes when the first U.S. President to win the Nobel Peace, Teddy Roosevelt, earned the prize (Diplomacy That Will Live in Infamy, James Bradley, December 6, 2009; Theodore Roosevelt, not F.D.R., had a greater effect on Japans decision to attack Pearl Harbor. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/opinion/06bradley.html). To sum it up briefly, Bradley wondered why his father, a marine, had to fight his Second World War in the Pacific, rather than Europe where one would have expected. As a historian it was not hard for Bradley to find out exactly why. Here is what happened.
A little over a century ago Theodore Roosevelt won his Nobel Peace Prize under false circumstances by taking credit for brokering the peace between Japan and Russia -- Baha'is are well familiar with this event, since the signing of the treaty took place at or nearby what is now Green Acre Baha'i Summer School. Roosevelt's acceptance of the prize was based on a lie, since it was Japan, not the U.S., which had secretly initiated the negotiations. If he had been honest he would have refused to accept the prize, but -- and here is another hard truth -- in an atmosphere of secrecy honest dealing is impossible. This historian traces the cause of Japan's attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor to Teddy Roosevelt's clear "You go, girl!" signal to Japan that her successful surprise attack on Russia, a clear violation of international law, was acceptable, even praiseworthy behaviour. Later, of course, the American role in the Second World War was shaped by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
The second US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize was, ironically, the only one directly to take on the hard truth that Obama so frankly brought up in his Nobel acceptance speech. That was Woodrow Wilson. The hard truth almost literally broke his head, since he was impaired during the Paris peace talks, and eventually died of a brain aneurism. In ending World War One, Wilson valiantly set up the international organization that became known as the League of Nations but failed when his own senate refused to join the League. Wilson died a broken and disappointed man. Had he succeeded, there would have been no World War II, no Cold War, and we would have no problem averting pollution and the melting of the poles.
Clearly, Wilson was the only one of the first two presidents to deserve the Nobel. In fact, he was the only one to deserve the name "leader" or "statesman," since a leader by definition leads, he goes beyond past ways and presuppositions even in the face of disapproval. Roosevelt, like all heads of state under the hard rules of Realpolitik, was immune, out of reach of all law and morality. But imagine if he were not. Imagine what would happen to a beat cop if he witnessed a mugging, praised the mugger and helped him "make up" with his victim, and then went around pretending to be a peacemaker. He would be in jail, he would not be accepting prizes and commendations. But heads of state are beyond such restrictions.
Although Barak Obama is on record calling himself a world citizen, at least he is being clear about what that means for him. Is he taking Roosevelt's path over that of Wilson? Sometimes I think he is, sometimes not. I read that sentence over and over,
"There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."
Sometimes this seems to state the obvious, that law and world order will have to be backed by force. But the next time I read it, it seems to be renouncing international law completely. Obama continued: "To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason." Hmm. When truth is that hard, it only makes sense that it should be caused by failings in our capacity to reason. Roosevelt was by this definition cynical, but at least he had the discretion to keep his contempt for international law a secret.
Just think, Germany in both wars, and Japan in the Second, and Russia in the Cold War, and Pol Pot, and just about any aggressor or villain you can name, all can just as candidly say that they "found the use of force not only necessary but morally justified." Osama Bin Laden, for heaven's sakes, finds force necessary and morally justified. Either you believe in law, a law that applies to all equally, or you do not. Otherwise we are all subject to "might makes right." This is the hard, indefeasible standard of naked self-interest that is openly being set on the table at Copenhagen.