Monday, October 12, 2009

What is a peacemaker?


The surprising choice of President Barack Obama for the Nobel Peace prize, coming so early in his term, has led to some interesting commentary on what exactly constitutes a noteworthy achievement in peacemaking. Many who feel the award is inappropriate contend that unless Obama were able to broker a significant treaty, or achieve an actual arms reduction, or some other similar accomplishment, he would not merit such an award. Supporters of the award, on the other hand, point to the transformation that President Obama has already achieved in the way Americans view the world, and the way the rest of the world views America. These conflicting points of view, as I discussed in my political blog, could be said to represent different philosophies of peacemaking. In one view, the successful resolution of conflict represents peace, whether that resolution is achieved by deterrence, or by force, or by diplomacy. In another view, it is the beginning of constructive dialogue that represents peace, even if an actual agreement has not been put in place.

In judging whether mediation of court disputes is successful, is it enough that the parties sign a settlement agreement? Sometimes parties agree to a settlement because the costs of litigation are too high, or because they want to avoid the risks of an unpredictable result in court, or because they are able to arrive at a similar calculation of the likely results of continued litigation. Such settlements are usually still a good thing, because they spare the parties the wasteful expenditures of time and effort involved in litigation. But it could be argued that they do not bring real peace, only an approximation of the results of litigation without going through the cathartic actual experience. For mediation to result in a truly transformative experience, i.e., peace, the parties have to engage in a more searching dialogue. Parties might need to consider whether they can repair their relationships with one another. Even if they intend no future relationship, they might need to spend some time really listening to and appreciating the other party's point of view. They might need to re-evaluate whether their own conduct contributed to the dispute.

It appears that the Nobel Committee recognized President Obama for opening up a potentially transformative dialogue, even if that process has not yet resulted in all of the results people might eventually like to see. Those who do not understand the nature of the President's achievement as recognized by the Nobel committee seem to be mainly people who have trouble understanding the nature of the peace process itself. Many, perhaps most, people have less experience with the art of diplomacy based on a recognition of common interests and shared values, being more familiar with ways of reaching results based solely on calculations of respective power positions. Perhaps the Nobel Committee, in addition to having the lofty goal of actually influencing peace processes, also has a more sophisticated understanding of how to achieve peace than do many of the committee's critics.

(image from nobelprize.org)

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