Friday 29 January 2010

Peacemaking and Afghanistan: another look at Obama's Nobel Prize address

A guest-post by Glen Stassen, Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary

The recent discussion of President Obama’s Nobel Prize Address focused on his use of just war and realism to justify the Afghan War. He did mention “just war” three times. But he emphasized “just peace” four times. He mentioned only three criteria of just war, but all ten practices of just peacemaking.

His theme: “No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy…. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago… ‘a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature, but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.’” He asked: “What might these practical steps be?”

Just peacemaking is a new ethic of peace and war. It names ten practical steps that work to make peace, and calls on us to prod governments to take those steps. This is set forth in the book, Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Pilgrim Press 2008). The consensus of thirty scholars, this book is based on the plain truth that it makes no sense to spend our time debating whether we approve of a war as just, if we don’t also debate the practices that work to prevent war. To debate that, we need to know the practices that have proven to work in making peace. What is truly remarkable is that now we have a president who understands the practices of just peacemaking, and advocates them in a major international address.

The thirty authors who reached consensus on just peacemaking include both just war theorists and pacifists. We don’t agree on whether war is sometimes justified or not. Not only the pacifists, but many just war theorists think the Afghan War is not justified; the Taliban didn’t attack the Twin Towers or any other nation; their focus is local. They always defeat foreign occupiers.

But we all agree on the ten practices that prevent many wars, and does Obama. If we miss his emphasis on the ten practices of just peacemaking, we'll miss his intention, and so miss the new paradigm for the ethics of peace and war that gives us new hope. Obama is nothing if he is not about giving reason to hope for something better. He concluded his address: “For all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate.”

One practice of just peacemaking is to acknowledge our own complicity in conflict and injustice. Obama began: “I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated…. I’m responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed.” And he acknowledged the threats of terrorism, new technologies of war, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the fact that though wars between nations have decreased dramatically, wars within nations still take many lives. Thus he pulled the thorn of controversy over his award and demonstrated the humility and respect that are keys to peacemaking.

Just peacemaking says talking and practicing conflict resolution with enemies, even enemies we have strong disagreements with, often solves problems better than war does. Obama said: Nixon met with Mao, despite Mao’s ordering the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, “and it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies.” Pope John Paul engaged with Poland, and it created space for the Catholic church, and for Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement that toppled the dictatorship. Ronald Reagan talked with Gorbachev, and it resulted in arms control, in empowering dissidents throughout Eastern Europe, and in the Soviet Union coming to a peaceful end. So we should talk with North Korea and Iran, and the dictatorial government of Burma, in search of human rights for their people, despite strong disagreements with those governments.

Obama praised the just peacemaking practice of nonviolent direct action, practiced by Gandhi and King, very personally. “As someone who stands here as a living testimony to Dr King’s work, I am living testimony to the force of non-violence.” He praised Aung Sang Suu Kyi in Burma, and the nonviolent demonstrators in Iran: “It is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear that these movements… have us on their side.”

Throughout the address, he argued for international cooperation. Evidence in the book, Just Peacemaking, says nations that engage in international cooperation experience war less often. Obama said of his commitment to international cooperation: “That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanimo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Convention.” No nation “can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.”

Supporting the UN, too, decreases wars. Obama reminded us that the United States led in creating the United Nations, and “there has been no Third World War.” Throughout, he argued for the just peacemaking practice of supporting human rights. He supported international (not unilateral) sanctions and humanitarian intervention for the sake of human rights.

Furthermore, “a just peace includes not only civil and political rights—it must encompass economic security and opportunity…. For true peace is not just freedom from fear; but freedom from want.” He gave credit to the Marshall Plan and economic development in Europe for helping prevent World War Three.

And encouraging the spread of democracy spreads peacemaking. Only when Europe achieved democracy did it achieve peace, Obama said. As just peacemaking points out, though democracies may do wrong, and sometimes fight or support wars, they do not send their troops to make wars against other democracies. Obama pointed out that “America has never fought a war against a democracy.”

Reducing offensive weapons is a practice of just peacemaking. Obama committed himself to working with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons, and “to work toward a world without them.” Just peacemaking also calls for supporting grass-roots groups that work for peacemaking. Obama gave his support to the movements of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Gandhi, King, Mandela, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland. (I was there in East Germany. Bitterfeld story. Hans Modrow addressing Parliament. I wept.)

The independent initiatives he commended were taken by “those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened cynics.” He concluded by acknowledging realism, and then advocated the practical work of just peacemaking: “Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace…. That’s the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on earth.”

Remarkable! Maybe we have a just peacemaking president. The Nobel Prize Committee thinks we do. I hope they prove right. Let us pray, realistically, that he doesn’t end up being remembered as the Afghan War President.


John Hobbins said...


Thanks for this post. It is a nice counterweight to Kim's shot across the bow (which made me nostalgic for the days in which I was a pastor in Italy and got an earful of the Euroleft perspective on a regular basis).

Anonymous said...

Great post, thanks Prof. Stassen.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Glen. But where is Jesus in this?

in said...

I'm curious how many South American countries would agree that Democracies like the USA don't make war against democracies, should he not have said open war to transform shocked outrage to wry humour at the wily politician.

Fat said...

"Where is Jesus in all this?"

Anonymous - I think He has been dismissed - Jesus advocated turning the other cheek - right now that is as un-American as a creed can get.

Anonymous said...

whoaaa :) what flavor of kool-aid do you drink this with?

Gary said...

War is unjust, but just peacemaking should have pacifist support. I throw my lot in here.

Odoi duo eisi: mia ths zohs kai mia tou thanatou.

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