the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…

Barack Obama today recieved his Nobel Peace Prize. His speech, broken into segments (the limitations of youtube demand it) is below.  It can also be read online here

I am by no means a pacifist (although I find violent solutions to conflict detestable), but some of his comments both delighted and dismayed me.

wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states; have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos. In today’s wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, and children scarred.

He rightly describes the trauma and pain of war, the true human cost  – civillian (and combatant) lives lost, nations forever altered by the scars.  He speaks of the history of Europe and the US, of conflicts, of diplomacy, of hope despite the odds. However, the dismay (or cynicism, or hope against the odds; call it what you will) set in as he spoke of the limits of  diplomacy and negotiation, acknowledging the strengh of the non-violent approach of Ghandi and Martin Luther King jr., and continuing:

…as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples aloneI face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. 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.

It was non-voilent discussion and mediated negotiation which ended 10 years of warfare in the western Balkan states, and enabled Macedonia and Serbia to flourish, despite the bloody and horendous nature of the conflict throughout the western Balkan states, although Kosovo required NATO intervention. It was  agreement to lay down arms and meet diplomatically which brought the end to a lifetime of  troubles in Ireland. It was a willingness to enter into mediated repentance and forgiveness at the heart of the Truth and Reconcilliation in South Africa which put an end to state-sponsored apartheid in that nation.

There can be opportunity to lay down arms and work for peace. It is an opportunity which has to be created, nurtured, given space.  To be sure, it is a high risk strategy, but one which can be richly rewarding. There are no easy answers, no easy routes, but often we take the easiest route of hitting out, rather than stepping back.  War has not solved the issue in the Gulf – whether it be the “WMD debate” or  revenge for 9/11 or some other reason.  Maybe its time for serious, committed, risky diplomacy?

In his own words: 

We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

For if we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.

Every situation in our world which has been resolved by word more than weapon has at one time or another been seen as one in which the practicality or possibility of non-violence was non-existant. Strive for the impossible, the impractical, the downright bonkers hope of peace from peaceful means, lest we breed more seeds of warfare in our future generations.


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