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What Peace Activists Can Achieve in the Age of Obama

Thad Williamson

Reading the collected literary works of Barack Hussein Obama in the days since November 4 has been an interesting experience. Like many in the Richmond peace community, I volunteered for Obama in the fall, and had paid close attention to his speeches and debate performances since his stunning win in the Iowa caucuses last January. Still, I hadn't actually read his two quite substantial books (Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope).

Reading through those pages now leaves one with three distinct impressions. Dreams of My Father leaves one stunned and amazed that a person with this set of life experiences and this degree of social justice consciousness has actually been elected president. The Audacity of Hope leaves one impressed by not only the author's familiarity and relatively subtle approaches to a range of policy issues but with his ability to link a wide range of concerns within a coherent interpretive frame.

Finally, one cannot help but be impressed by the degree to which the campaign Obama waged and won was consistent with the vision of politics he lays out in his books. The basics of that vision can be summarized as follows: America is a seriously flawed place, but the basic instincts of its people are good. Our history has often been awful and brutal, but we as a people have the capacity for change. Ordinary people can be the agents driving that change, but that can only happen if we recover a faith in public life-that is, in politics. But that, in turn, can only happen if we reconnect politics to moral values in a clear way.

Obama's vision has already re-made history and opened up new possibilities for America's future political development. But now that his presidency is upon us, it's worth taking a hard look at just what Obama's world view is, and the trajectory it suggests for the next four years and beyond. While Obama repeatedly articulates a small-r republican faith in ordinary people's capacity to shape the future, it will be Obama himself calling the shots and shaping the agenda. Indeed, contrary to the hopes of many progressive activists calling for sustained mobilization and pressure to push Obama in a progressive direction, the evidence of The Audacity of Hope in particular suggests that Obama is not someone likely to bow to pressures of any kind unless or until he himself is persuaded of the wisdom of a given course of action.

So what then is Obama's world view? I will focus here on questions of war, peace, and international relations. The Audacity of Hope reveals Obama to be what might be called a progressive realist.

The "realist" part comes in Obama's acceptance of the basic framework of international politics in the 21st century. That framework is highlighted most obviously by the disproportionate power of the United States, backed by a massive military. Obama thinks the U.S. must play a lead role in world affairs, both to protect American interests and to help solve common problems, and that sometimes that lead role requires use of military force (as in Afghanistan).

Obama's realism is likely to make many peace activists uncomfortable. He does not think war is always wrong, and he does not think that American hegemony is necessarily a bad thing.

But Obama's form of realism is very different from the Bush-Cheney belief that America is both all-powerful and infallible. Obama recognizes that the U.S. historically has often played a destructive role overseas (he cites Vietnam and support for dictators, including in Indonesia as examples). He thinks that the "war on terror" (a phrase hopefully soon to be retired) cannot be won in Iraq or other military misadventures, but only by a more complex strategy in which military force plays a subordinate role. He does not call for cuts in the military budget, but does call for spending less on expensive weapons system and more on personnel and training. And he calls for paying attention to and devoting resources to the dire problems of the developing world, including Africa, for both humanitarian and practical reasons.


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Obama's brand of realism is reminiscent of that of the mid-twentieth century Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was deeply interested in social justice both domestically and internationally, but also very clear that we human beings are deeply motivated by our own self-interest and that justice, reason, and even love itself can never fully tame our tendency to act selfishly, especially when we act as a group via the nation-state. Niebuhr's understanding of the human condition led him away from pacifism; instead he embraced the military fight against Nazism and fascism in World War II. Yet at the same time, Niebuhr wrote favorably of the possibilities for using nonviolent civil disobedience to advance social change, particularly with respect to civil rights, in the process helping inspire Martin Luther King, Jr.

In a world governed by power, Niebuhr believed, those who hoped to advance justice and democracy needed to be willing to use power-hence his endorsement of the basic Cold War framework (one which Obama writes admiringly about). But Niebuhr also warned of the hubris that comes with believing that our own motives are pure and that our power is limitless (just as Obama criticizes many of the side consequences of the Cold War, such as our involvement in coups abroad and the rise of the military-industrial complex at home).

What Obama hopes to do is to craft a broad new national security strategy with the same coherence as the Cold War containment strategy, but without the associated hubris. Such a strategy gives up on the idea we can spread democracy by force, but aggressively seeks to confront real security threats (such as loose nuclear weapons), using force when necessary. Importantly, Obama also recognizes the need to pay attention as well to "promoting peace," a goal which centrally must include raising the standards of living of the one-half of the world's population living on less than two dollars a day.

Overall Obama's vision, if realized, would certainly represent a historic shift of orientation, and his presidency promises a welcome return of the idea that sensible foreign policy must take seriously the perspectives of other countries and their peoples. What role might the peace community play in helping take advantage of the opportunity this presidency represents?

As noted above, I do not think it is realistic to suppose that activist pressure can alter Obama's basic framework, including his commitment to periodic use of force. Obama has made it very clear he intends to send more troops into Afghanistan (even while pursuing a withdrawal from Iraq), and I don't think public pressure can stop that particular train.

Where public pressure might pay real dividends is in ensuring that the "progressive" aspect of Obama's realist outlook is not left on the shelf. For instance, Obama is well aware of the problems of world poverty and the role the IMF, World Bank and global debt have played in accentuating such poverty. Relatively early in his campaign, he called for a doubling of foreign aid. Yet in the vice-presidential debate Joe Biden suggested increasing foreign aid might be one of the items to fall by the wayside as a result of the economic crisis.

Hopefully that was just another example of Biden putting his foot in his mouth. But the peace community and all those concerned with advancing justice need to make our voices heard and assure that the best promises offered by Obama are not sacrificed on the altar of expediency. The danger is that pledges to do something real to help the world's poor and secure the basis for long-term peace are quietly forgotten while bigger ticket items (Iraq, Afghanistan, the economic crisis) hog the headlines.

That is a danger the peace community can help avert. While we cannot alter Obama's basic framework for engaging with the world, we can insist that the new administration have the courage to live up to its own best principles.

Thad Williamson is assistant professor of leadership studies, University of Richmond

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