For the past few weeks I’ve been addicted to CNN — at least while the Democratic candidates are holding forth. Especially Obama. Gosh, I’m almost like that young girl who proclaims “I’ve got a crush on Obama!” (I understand that one of Barack’s little daughters was disturbed by watching the “Obama girl” singing on Youtube. She asked, “But Daddy has Mommy, doesn’t he?”)
Anyhow, I sometimes wonder why I continue to watch the same speech of his three or four times. But I know this much: I’m learning from him. I’m supposed to know a thing or two about conflict resolution, since I have specialized professionally in teaching peace studies. Actually, I’m not a very good peace worker when it comes to on-the-ground resolution of conflict. And the best instructor I’ve ever observed in that art is Barack Obama. It is worth watching him almost endlessly to see how he does it.
I don’t know what specific conflicts he has resolved. However, I can see that he maintains relationships with his opponents that makes it possible for them to transcend their disagreements. I’m not referring just to Hillary Clinton, either, though he is the first to say that she is a fine and worthy candidate. He took the same attitude toward the other candidates early on — especially John Edwards, and now John McCain. That will be wonderful to watch, if McCain and Obama become their parties’ nominees this summer.
My problem is, I’m too principled. I could easily be a dissident in a totalitarian country, standing up in public against all those craven people who obey dictators. I’d wind up in a Gulag, of course, and I’d feel proud of myself, but I’m not sure how much I’d contribute to ending the tyranny. For certain, I’d despise my jailers as immoral — which might make them consider themselves immoral as well, for what that’s worth. However satisfactory it would be for me, it might not help them rise to the level of courage that are capable of attaining.
Obama, on the other hand, is a natural-born Gandhi. He has principles and stands up for them a good deal of the time, even when he is expressing views that are designed to suit his political audiences. For example, the other night Hillary was claiming that she’s a fighter and will fight for her health care proposals. But Obama expressed doubt that fighting is always what is required; sometimes it’s more useful to reach across to the Republicans and get support from them. (Maybe her failure to do so in the past explains her inability to get any good legislation enacted, but he was too tactful to say so.)
In the US today, the public is even more disgusted by Congress than by the president, since they merely fight all the time instead of working together to enact good laws. The result is a political stalemate. They all know who their opponents are, but knowing that doesn't help much. Instead, they need to know that even their fiercest opponents have hidden ambivalences that can be contacted sometimes.
When Gandhi tried to practice law, he was a complete failure. He couldn’t function within the British adversarial system whereby there are two sides, each trying to win. In traditional India, local elders would get together to find solutions to conflicts, not to apportion blame. This approach appealed to Gandhi, who in his own work always tried to acknowledge the worthy side of his adversaries, even when they were abusing him, and even when he was standing up for his principles with nonviolent resistance. I don’t do that easily, but I love watching people who are good at it. Especially Obama.
Everyone else seems to love it too. I was watching Charlie Rose in London a couple of days ago, interviewing Timothy Garton Ash and John Burns of the New York Times. (There was another unfamiliar guy named Alistair too but I don’t recall his surname.) Ash said that what is going on now is not just an American election, but an election for the whole world. Both he and Burns expressed dismay about the anti-Americanism that has come to prevail in Europe — indeed, almost everywhere. They agreed that even the most vitriolic anti-Americans in Europe also love the United States — or at least want to love it again. Obama’s candidacy is giving people reason to get over their hatred of America. Everywhere you go, anywhere in the world, says Ash, you will find people in coffee shops talking about Obama. And it’s elevating the political discourse. People see the possibility that this bad period of history will soon end.
So the dignity of the debates is helping clean up the whole world. People physically cringe when they are exposed to ugliness and rudeness. Indeed, it can make them ill if it prevails too long. So there is relief and pleasure when mutual respect is displayed. I am enjoying these US political debates primarily because they are civil and even enjoyable. Obama doesn’t look stressed at all and when someone asks him about a hostile remark from Hillary, he just says tolerantly, “Yes, it’s getting competitive now.”
In contrast, I heard the Question Period on Canada’s House of Commons the other day, and they were shouting catcalls at each other. I was shocked. I felt the same disgust during the last federal Canadian election when all the candidates were debating the issues; they kept interrupting and trying to drown each other out. Jack Layton, the leader of the NDP, whom I know and like personally, was the most offensive. I had to turn it off, it was so unpleasant.
An hour ago I was designing pages for Peace Magazine. My own article, a review of Jonathan Schell’s book The Seventh Decade followed an article by a dear friend of mine about New Zealand’s successful refusal to allow ships carrying nuclear weapons into their harbors. Oddly, that article and my own review both mentioned George Shultz, who had been U.S. Secretary of State when New Zealand took its courageous stand. Shultz is now one of the four most compelling advocates of complete nuclear disarmament — a fact that my friend found incongruous, since he had tried to intimidate the New Zealanders when they were keeping nuclear weapons out of their country.
In a way, I found it incongruous too. In those days I had regarded Shultz as a hawk, along with the president whom he served, Ronald Reagan. Yet both of them were closer all along to my own views than they usually showed. As Schell points out, Reagan was the strongest abolitionist anywhere, who in Reykjavik came within an inch of promising to get rid of all nuclear weapons as well as all the planes and missiles that carry them. At that moment, Shultz burst out with enthusiasm: “Let’s do it!”
What made their overt change possible? I think it was Gorbachev. Instead of approaching Reagan as the leader of a monolithic enemy state, he was able to recognize in him both the hard-nosed leader and the man who abhorred nuclear weapons. By recognizing Reagan’s ambivalence, he made change possible — or almost possible, for in the end it did not quite happen.
In her article about New Zealand, my friend proposes that Canada follow its example. She predicts that the United States would react badly and perhaps impose trade penalties as a way of retaliating. I have to admit that I edited her predictions a bit, reducing their draconian nature, since I dislike portraying the whole United States of America as a monolithic enemy. She often writes pieces in which she refers to “the US” as the source of some evil or other — and indeed most of my peacenik friends talk the same way, not realizing how their sweeping anti-Americanism undermines the possibility for cooperation. In editing, I always simply replace her reductive term “the US” with “the Bush administration.”
It is accurate to portray Bush as an extremist, but few people who have ever lived in the United States would portray the whole country that way. And at this particular moment in history, it is exceedingly unlikely that even the Bush administration would become harshly punitive toward Canada for refusing to be protected by America's nuclear “umbrella.” In fact, Prime Minister Chretien did decline to join the US ballistic missile defence and nothing bad happened to Canada. Today I’d expect the Obama-loving crowd of Americans to be thrilled if their ally Canada should take such a stand. They are learning to approach situations with hope; I'd like my peacenik friends to do the same.
I have evidence for my prediction, too. If you go to Barack Obama’s home page and read his foreign policy section, you’ll find that he intends to move toward the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. (This contrasts to the position of Hillary Clinton, who intends only to reduce them.) Here’s Obama’s official nuclear weapons policy, word-for-word:
* A Record of Results: The gravest danger to the American people is the threat of a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon and the spread of nuclear weapons to dangerous regimes. Obama has taken bipartisan action to secure nuclear weapons and materials:
1. He joined Senator Dick Lugar in passing a law to help the United States and our allies detect and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction throughout the world.
2. He joined Senator Chuck Hagel to introduce a bill that seeks to prevent nuclear terrorism, reduce global nuclear arsenals, and stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
3. And while other candidates have insisted that we should threaten to drop nuclear bombs on terrorist training camps, Obama believes that we must talk openly about nuclear weapons – because the best way to keep America safe is not to threaten terrorists with nuclear weapons, it's to keep nuclear weapons away from terrorists.
* Secure Loose Nuclear Materials from Terrorists: Obama will secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years. While we work to secure existing stockpiles of nuclear material, Obama will negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material. This will deny terrorists the ability to steal or buy loose nuclear materials.
* Strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Obama will crack down on nuclear proliferation by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that countries like North Korea and Iran that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions.
* Toward a Nuclear Free World: Obama will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it. Obama will always maintain a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist. But he will take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons. He will stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate- range missiles so that the agreement is global.