“Speaking truth to power” and the trillion dollar war machine
A commentary I recently contributed to The Guardian (London), arguing that awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was unlikely to advance the cause of peace in China, drew many predictable ripostes from readers on the Guardian site, and some further flurries of bemused contempt in the China-punditry blogosphere (eg, here). It’s ironic how unwilling so many Western liberals are to hear dissenting voices in their own communities, and depressing how a technologically expanded “public sphere” so soon fills up with sound and fury signifying rather little.
I never met Liu Xiaobo but can only assume, given his long history of political activism and repeated episodes of imprisonment, that he understood the risks he was taking with initiatives such as the Charter 08 manifesto (which called for root-and-branch democratic reforms, constitutional guarantees for human rights etc.) I doubt that even he believed that this would be the single match that sets a prairie ablaze. I imagine, rather, that he merely hoped to keep the match alight, whatever the personal cost; and that much the same hope motivated those other graduates of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre who in the late ’90s formed the Democracy Party of China and were imprisoned for their pains (and also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize). I have no reason to believe that they are other than decent people determined to “speak truth to power” and I acknowledge their commitment and their courage.
I also hope that my reading of the situation is entirely wrong. That the Nobel award will create new impetus for reform—as, according to Western liberal orthodoxy, did the award of the same prize to Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union in 1973. That by non-violent means a new political dispensation will be achieved: perhaps with Liu, Mandela-like, emerging from jail as the moral figurehead of a democratic China and with Lin Yifu returning home from the World Bank to run the Chinese economy instead. That all people in the West will delight in these developments, and that world peace will prevail. But I rather doubt this happy prognosis.
I doubt it firstly because I don’t believe that past events in Russia, Eastern Europe or South Africa are a reliable guide to what may happen in China. Distinct contexts and historical experiences give rise to distinct processes and outcomes. This is why even our “globalised” world still presents considerable diversity, despite the obvious universality of our humanity.
I doubt it secondly because I have seen at first hand how counter-productive Western efforts to promote democracy in China can be.
From a boardroom in Washington, New York or Oslo it may seem a fine thing to sign a cheque that will enable Chinese people to defend or demand their rights. Such initiatives are invariably well-meant and some are thoughtful and constructive. But too many are inspired by a vision of “civil society” as an emerging, oppositional, “regime changing” force—a movement or groundswell like Solidarity or Charter 77—as if today’s China were essentially no different from Communist Poland or former Czechoslovakia. Here, for example, is U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, speaking in 2006 to a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (about, on that occasion, Iran):
I think the Solidarity model is a good one, where you had numbers of people come together. You had the labor unions in Poland come together, but they also then were joined by the academics, by human rights activists. When people organize themselves and really become unified in calling for change, then you get the change that you need.
Such analysis informs a great deal of Western media reporting and even academic writing on China. It has over the years encouraged democracy-promoting funders to look for brave Chinese (and Iranian) protagonists who might foster and lead such movements; while at the same time tying to disseminate “rights awareness” far and wide enough to create a critical mass to follow those leaders.
I am thinking, for example, of a young American woman who emailed me in Beijing in 2004, saying that she was en route from the U.S. to Mongolia to evaluate a USAID microfinance programme and asking if she could drop by to discuss the microfinance scene in China (about which I had recently written. ) When she arrived she presented herself instead as a consultant to the (U.S. Congress funded) National Endowment for Democracy (NED). What she really wanted was to be put in touch with any “envelope pushing” activists or “rights defenders” I might know.
At that time, colleagues at China Development Brief and I were putting together a Chinese language directory of 200 international NGOs and private foundations working in (or “on”) China. Our idea was, quite simply, independently to profile these groups for the benefit of people in China’s growing NGO sector and in government. After all, China’s 60 or so million Communist Party cadres and 120 million or so government staff are human beings, and so presumably they enjoy some kind of human right to know what lao wai are up to in their country.
NED and the Open Society Institute ignored numerous requests for information, although they were funding various initiatives in China, and the International Republican Institute refused point blank to supply any, infuriating an American volunteer colleague of mine with their rudeness to her over the phone. The National Democratic Institute was only a little better. (We included them all anyway, putting together what we knew from other sources.) Then of course there were the hypersensitivities of organizations working in Tibetan areas, including, for example, The Bridge Fund, which relied upon U.S. Congressional funds but did not disclose the source of its funding—much less the fact that this was secured through the political patronage of the late Senator Jesse Helms—even to its grantees.
These agencies, and many more besides, preferred to work “beneath the radar” because they believed, doubtless sincerely, that in this way more good could be done, more seeds of human rights and democracy sown. (Though some, I regretfully concluded, actually enjoyed the romance of the cloak and dagger.) I think they were mistaken and that their woeful lack of transparency did more harm than good—even though many of their programmes were in fact quite anodyne and some, in my own view, were quite constructive.
International interest in China’s civil society, and especially the quest to find, to form and to support civic leaders, inevitably complicated—indeed, geo-politicised—relationships between Chinese activists and their government.
During the 1990s, Communist Party rule moved towards what I have termed “consultative authoritarianism.” Quasi-independent think tanks and NGOs proliferated. There was room for policy debate in both specialist fora and mainstream media, with some public intellectuals taking positions that were openly and clearly critical of Communist Party policy. Ordinary citizens in some urban communities began to come together to solve pressing problems in their daily lives—for example, in creating mutual-aid care services for children with congenital disabilities. The government explicitly encouraged “social forces” (shehui liliang) to fill gaps in health, education, social welfare and even legal aid services. Among those to answer the call were faith-based organizations such as the YMCA and the Amity Foundation. (The latter, in addition to running nationwide relief and development programmes, prints and distributes Bibles. On the same day that Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel prize was announced, Amity was holding a public ceremony to mark the printing of its 80 millionth Bible.)
None of this suggested a move towards Western-style democracy. Most international commentary—unsurprisingly, given the long shadows still cast by the 1989 Tiananmen massacre—continued to argue that nothing “fundamental” had changed in China, and rejected out of hand the possibility that there might be an appropriate and just form of “governance” for China that was not Western-style democracy, but based instead on China’s own historical experience and situation. Rather, pressure groups such as Human Rights in China argued that things were getting worse, not better. But such hyperbole dismissed manifest signs of greater personal freedom and growing communication, dialogue, bargaining and compromise between the state and an array of constituencies in the much more complex and stratified society that China was becoming.
Creative but non-confrontational public-interest advocacy was exemplified by Liang Congjie, founder of China’s best-known environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, who died in Beijing on October 28, aged 78. (See my tribute to Liang here.) He would have been an entirely fitting Nobel Peace laureate.
Chinese disability activism, faith-based service provision and Bible printing attracted little attention beyond China. Environmental NGOs were a sexier story because of their presumed potential for driving “fundamental” change. International donors were keen to engage, and the NGOs were closely followed by numerous research students, academics and pundits from overseas, leading another prominent environmentalist, Liao Xiaoyi, to complain that she and her kind were being treated like“specimens in a laboratory.”)
Typical of the research findings was this assessment by U.S. Council for Foreign Relations researcher, Elizabeth Economy, writing in 2004:
[T]here is evidence—nascent still—that the Chinese leadership will prove no more adept than the East Europeans at managing reform while avoiding revolution. As was the case in some of the countries of Eastern Europe and republics of the Soviet Union, as well as countries in Asia, environmental NGOs in China are at the vanguard of nongovernmental activity. Thus the question is not only whether nongovernmental actors can shape the future of environmental protection in China but also whether they may play a role in effecting broader political change.
Displayed here again is the alluring tendency—to which, let me be clear, I was also at times prone—to look for something grander than a more active citizenry engaged in a better conversation with their rulers. But “nascent” evidence is no more than speculation; and in its speculative flights of fancy the Western imagination all too often veers towards a revolutionary view of any possible democratization process, emphasizing an adversarial relationship between citizens and state, and with some great defining moment—“another Tiananmen” of some kind—presumably lying at some point in the future.
Given this, it was hardly surprising that in 2005, following a spate of “colour revolutions” in other countries (assisted, many media reports claimed, by foreign funding), the government of China should launch a lengthy investigation of international and domestic NGO activity in China.
Yet the authorities were not so alarmed by the results as to follow this up with a wholesale “crackdown.” The investigation was almost certainly a significant factor in my own eventual expulsion from China in 2007, in the closure of some of the more adventurous Chinese NGO initiatives, and in subsequent tightening of regulations over foreign funding for Chinese groups. The boorishness of state security operatives probably helped nudge some of the thousands of people they interviewed over the line from activism to outright dissidence. But developments in Chinese politics seldom flow in only one direction at once. Just as the forthright suppression of Falun Gong in the late 1990s was accompanied by continued liberalization for non-“cult” faiths, so too government determination to “supervise” the NGO sector better in the late 2000s was accompanied by some openings: notably, a new generation of wholly private Chinese foundations starting (alongside parastatal foundations) to retail funds to “grass roots” NGOs, including some doing distinctly “progressive” work—in, for example, legal representation of peasants dispossessed by local government land-grabs.
This suggests more than “nascent” evidence of real progress in developing civic institutions with at least some “international” characteristics. This has not been an entirely “top-down” process but has, rather, involved the push and pull of contending views and forces within and outside of the Communist Party. But there is no evidence that this has happened because of international pressure, or in response to international plaudits for activists who go furthest in demanding “fundamental” change.
Although I never met Liu Xiaobo I did, during my twelve years in Kunming and Beijing, get to know and follow the careers of some younger activists who have since been jailed. Notably, Chen Guangcheng, a blind “self-trained lawyer” who sought my help several times in the early 2000s (because he had been given a UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Human Rights Fund grant to start a “disabled persons’ rights protection centre” but seemed to have no strategy and little capacity for putting this worthy plan into action); and Hu Jia, who started out as a Tibetan Antelope campaigner and, at my invitation, sat on the editorial advisory group of a Chinese language publication I founded to report on China’s growing NGO sector. (It is now Chinese-owned and still going strong.)
I soon concluded, though, that Chen and Hu were impetuous young men steeling themselves to fight an establishment that they despised. Of course I don’t blame them for that. I was an impetuous young man myself once and have not yet mellowed beyond recognition. But, however sympathetic I was to these men’s activist temperament and aspirations, and however deplorable the treatment that they have received, it seemed to me that spoiling for a fight achieved rather little either in terms of making real improvements to other people’s lives or in terms of achieving the kind of liberties and protections that Westerners are so lucky as to enjoy.
In 2006, Chen was jailed for four years and three months by Linyi County court in Shandong province after staging a public protest against and exposing (to Time magazine) gross abuses in the county’s implementation of family planning rules. It is possible that central authorities subsequently disciplined the Linyi officials responsible for these abuses, and thus that Chen’s martyrdom resulted in something useful. It is also distinctly possible, however, that such a result could have been achieved through less confrontational and self-sacrificial means, because the central State Family Planning Commission had for several years been working hard to curtail just such abuses.
The Commission of course believed that the prevention of 400 million or so births during 25 years of “reform and opening” had been an important factor in China’s economic take-off, and birth control remained a high priority. Yet the worst forms of coercion were not only inherently undesirable but also less sustainable in a society where memories of the Cultural Revolution were growing more distant and where individuals were enjoying more personal freedom. The family planning regime was in fact moving quite fast from centrally mandated annual birth quotas, strictly enforced through compulsory abortions and sterilizations (which were still occurring in Linyi), to a system which offered a range of contraceptive information and choice and which allowed couples the minimal freedom at least to choose when to have their child (or, in very many cases, two children). In this, the Commission cooperated with international agencies such as UNFPA and the Ford Foundation, which were subjected to fierce Western critiques—and, in UNFPA’s case, withdrawal of U.S. funding—for their efforts to help make a bad system better. Various quasi-independent Chinese organizations, such as the China Population Foundation and the China Family Planning Association (CFPA) were leading similar efforts and forging talented activists of their own—such as Liu Liqing, who left the CFPA to run Marie Stopes International in China, and led it in pioneering work to extend much-needed “family planning” services to young, unmarried women, especially migrant workers.
Chen’s real offence was thus not his opposition to brutal coercion, for “the system” by now itself opposed this. His real offence was taking the story straight to international media, rather than to sympathetic ears—be they Chinese or foreign—with contacts higher up the system.
The Western liberal orthodoxy has it that international media attention brings dissident activists some measure of protection, and this may in some cases be true. But Chen’s appearance on the front page of the Asian edition of Time magazine (as the blind activist bravely exposing state officials who murder unborn children) very likely sealed his fate. Given the international exposure, his sentence was almost certainly decided not in Linyi but by higher-level Party bureaucrats who were stung by the spectacularly bad press, which gave the world the—on the whole, false—impression that nothing was “really” changing in China’s family planning regime.
Hu Jia’s trajectory was even more complex. From campaigning to save Tibetan Antelopes he ranged across a number of areas, including participating in anti-Japanese protests and establishing an “AIDS activist” NGO, Loving Source, to advocate for AIDS orphans in Henan province. Public health authorities in Henan (and in several other provinces besides) had for many years operated “blood stations” that infected impoverished peasants with HIV in the course of extracting blood products from paid donors to sell at a profit. So gross was this dereliction of duty (and the public health policy failures that gave rise to it) that official denial and concealment were strenuous. The practice came to light largely through the whistle blowing of courageous activists (none of whom was, to my knowledge, imprisoned for their part in the exposé; although some were harassed and beaten in skirmishes with Henan province security agents and hired thugs.)
Once the scandal was exposed, an expanded corps of AIDS activists kept up the pressure by demanding compensation and care for the Henan victims, and tried to lead the way by providing services of their own. As I argued in 2004, much of this activity was of dubious value. With scant regard to international notions of child rights, activists brought orphans to Beijing for what amounted to publicity stunts; while back in Henan their efforts to pilot non-government care facilities almost certainly pressed local authorities into inappropriate kinds of service response—notably, grouping AIDS orphans in special facilities that, far from helping them to overcome personal trauma clearly risked increasing social stigma. NGOs had tried to establish such facilities, and local authorities followed that lead—in an effort, almost certainly, to demonstrate that they were on top of the problem—rather than following the central Ministry of Civil Affairs’ own, recently-developed guidelines for treating AIDS orphans in exactly the same way as children whose parents died in road traffic accidents: with fostering and adoption as the preferred option, and institutional care in “family-style small-group homes” as a last resort.
In short, whilst bold and outspoken civic activism played an important role in exposing the scandal in Henan, it contributed little of obvious value to remedying the human tragedy that had been revealed. Visiting “blood station” provinces in 2007, I and a Chinese colleague found clear evidence that both government and non-government HIV care and support services were functioning far better in neighbouring Anhui province than in Henan, which had become a government-activist battlefield.
Hu Jia was one of the players on that battlefield, and it is largely as an “AIDS activist” that he has been celebrated by human rights organizations around the world. But his three-and-a-half year sentence (in 2008, on charges of “inciting subversion”) undoubtedly owed more to the energy and scope of his “cyber” activism which was itself fuelled by the clumsy efforts to contain him. During a period of house arrest in 2006 he and his wife entertained themselves by filming the security goons sent to sit outside their house, later posting footage of this on the Internet, along with copious blogs that denounced everything from the sale of contaminated baby milk to China’s imperial-style rule of Tibet. And thus Hu achieved cyber-celebrity as a rebel who found not just one cause but dozens. Whereupon the Chinese state promptly consolidated his celebrity-dissident status by throwing him in jail.
Both Chen and Hu were widely acclaimed by international media. Time magazine reported on Chen’s case no less than 17 times, including him in a 2006 list of “100 people who shape our world” with a citation that described him as “a hero in Shandong [where few people outside of the security apparatus would have heard of him] and an important player in China’s nascent civil society.” That word “nascent” again: always so expressive of what the writer wishes to see born.
Various international prizes followed. Chen was honoured by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Ramon Magsasay Foundation, while the European Union conferred upon Hu its top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize. These awards were all too clearly accolades not for changing but for fighting the “system.” Yet this international lionizing of people who had taken on the system full-frontal could not but complicate the task of more patient and, in my view, more successful “agents of change”—women like Liao Xiaoyi and Liu Liqing, and men like Liang Congjie.
I do not defend consultative authoritarianism as a “good” political arrangement, nor do I believe that it is “the end of history” in China: it was simply the reality of the China I knew. Many, probably most, Chinese people continued to experience government as fate, hoped for nothing more than good-enough leaders and for the chance of personal and family advancement, and—I imagine—felt that, although local officials often fell well short of the mark, there could be much worse hands at the national helm than those of a Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao. This tacit, often grudging consent, blended with a strong narrative of the “continuity” of Chinese civilization and with repugnance for the Cultural Revolution “chaos” that still lay in living memory, was the basis of China’s precarious stability.
But many other Chinese people clearly deplored “the system.” The brightest and best of them felt caught between a rock and a hard place:—on the one hand, the intractability and corruption of the political-economic elite and their thuggish security goons; on the other, the conceited proselytizing of Westerners who just “do not understand China.” And China is so big and complicated it is a hard place to change, so it is only natural that many such people should eschew civic activism in favour of the comfort zone of personal advancement. But some, I found, were people of great wisdom and perseverance, people who were prepared to negotiate and compromise, who were ready to work with the grain of existing power to fashion something better, and something probably quite distinct from Western-style democracy.
Did Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and Hu Jia have the “human right” to speak out in the way they chose? No doubt they did. Do people have a right, if they so choose, to bash their head against a brick wall—even when the bashing, however heroic, tends to strengthen rather than weaken the wall? Yes, I dare say they do. But I don’t see much honour in encouraging head-banging from a position of protected privilege. It merely supplies China’s jails with prison fodder—to be traded, often quite nakedly, across the table in international “human rights dialogues.”
The China I knew was, I felt, teetering between some kind of fascism and some kind of Chinese democratization. The important questions were these:
Do we really want to see Tiananmen awash with blood again?
Would we be so reckless if it was our own blood?
Are our efforts to promote democratization in China in fact edging it towards fascism?
My own answers were:
In some cases, yes
Of course, many people—and, I will concede, not just Westerners, but Chinese too—believe that fighting is the only real way to achieve change. That ruling elites never relinquish power or concede rights voluntarily but only under pressure, and that belief in peacefully negotiated reform is a romantic delusion.
I understand that argument well enough but would make several rejoinders. Firstly, many of China’s most energetic and “progressive” social activists and reformers emerged from “the system” and remain at least partially embedded in it. Others, who are more clearly outside the establishment, often strive to emulate the insiders’ position since they judge it better to have a place at the table where they can contribute to debate rather than be shouting from outside the room. And although many Party cadres and officials at all levels use their positions for private gain—as well as lording it over others with the casual disdain of unaccountable power—others I met worked conscientiously and with a genuine regard for the public good. In short, there are good guys in government, whilst close observation obliged me to conclude that the activist and NGO community had its own share of charlatans and petty egotists, who I would shudder to see wield more power than they actually did. However appealing it may be for outsiders to look for some grand cleavage between angels and villains, such an approach is invariably reductive of China’s complexity.
Secondly, there is multiple “contestation” going on all the time in China, although this is obscured more than clarified by the morally simplifying lens of most Western commentary and, especially, by the need for stories that fit into two-minute TV news slots.
Thirdly, one of the clear and present dangers to social and political stability in China, which Communist Party theoreticians can hardly have failed to notice, is the possibility of class war. Some new wealth has come simply from trade, but most has derived from re-deployment of peasant labour and land: drawing the “surplus” rural population from fields into factories and low-paid urban service industries, and turning peri-urban farmland into industrial parks and residential districts. Local governments have been key agents in a process of capital accumulation that has been marked not by merely incidental crony capitalism but by a close, strategic alliance between government and entrepreneurs. And, for sure, this relationship goes right to the top. The “princeling” children of successive generations of leaders have become captains in the cutting edge-industries of their day. (Deng Xiaoping’s children had dominant positions in the manufacture of arms and agricultural machinery; Li Peng’s in hydropower; Jiang Zemin’s in telecoms; Zhu Rongji’s in securities; Hu Jintao’s in Internet and security equipment industries, and Wen Jiabao’s in computing, telecoms equipment and investment funds.)
Naturally, this kind of class privilege is deeply resented by many Chinese people. But the close interweaving of political and economic power is hardly new and hardly a Chinese invention. The West did not achieve “development” in some morally luminous show of fair play and the Chinese political leadership, whilst certainly enjoying a good slice of the cake, is careful to spread far more crumbs of opportunity than are to be found in the petty, patrimonial dictatorships or even the “nascent” democracies of many developing countries—including the “transitional” states of the former Soviet Union. And, after decades of urging China to embrace market reforms, what Western government (or NGO) can honestly blame China’s political leadership for attempting to achieve a peaceful “balance” of interests between newly proletarianised peasants, the rapidly swelling professional and managerial classes, and the economic elite? Has a single Western government or mainstream opposition party over the last two centuries ever advocated class conflict as a means to achieve the secular grail of “human rights, democracy and the rule of law”? Well, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor is pretty gung ho about such stuff abroad. But not at home.
Where is my peace dividend?
Fourthly, and in my view most fundamentally, if we extrapolate the change-through-conflict thesis to the global arena we arrive at the troubling question: why would the West ever voluntarily or peacefully relinquish the global economic, political and cultural power it has enjoyed for the last few centuries? (And which, in large part, stemmed from the barrel of a gun; quite a lot of guns.)
To be sure, many in the West profess willingness to “accommodate” China provided it becomes a “responsible member of the international community” blah blah blah. In addition, some cornucopian free-marketeers appear sincerely to believe that “the right policies” would enable developing countries eventually to “level up” to Western living standards (despite the rather glaring evidence of resource constraints and “market failures” such as global climate change.) But visceral fear of China, as it begins to show some signs of leveling up, is also clearly discernible in the West. Many of us, probably most, simply preferred the status quo ante and are highly reluctant to see significant change in the distribution of global power.
At any rate, Chinese Communist Party strategists almost certainly infer such reluctance from the fact that, despite the West’s financial crisis, US military spending reached USD 663 billion in 2009: almost double 1998 levels and more (in real terms) than at any point in previous history.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute , the current U.S. spend is around three times greater than that of the “BRIC” countries combined (Brazil: 27.13 billion; Russia: 61 billion; India: 36.6 billion; China—which, yes, is also increasing spending fast: 99 billion). Combined NATO military spending amounts to more than a trillion (1,000,000,000,000) dollars per year. This doesn’t look much like willingness to embrace a new world order.
As an analysis by the U.S. based Commonwealth Institute makes clear, the surge in U.S. military spending over the last decade is not solely attributable to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor is it attributable to the “war on terror” more generally. To a significant extent, it is driven upwards by the economic interests of the “military-industrial complex” against which President Eisenhower warned in his 1961 valedictory speech, and which now includes not only weapons manufacturers but also private, for-profit suppliers of armed mercenaries (Blackwater, Halliburton, etc.) But China’s Politburo must surely perceive the ongoing U.S. military build-up as at least in part aimed at “containing” China.
Indeed, it does not require much deep thinking to make this inference, since it is proclaimed by prominent U.S. commentators. For example, in a recent paper American Enterprise Institute researcher, Daniel Blumenthal, describes and applauds America’s foreign policy objectives in Asia as being “to prevent the emergence of a hostile hegemon [China]” and “to ensure the liberty of the global commons.” At the same time, blogging on the Foreign Policy magazine website, Mr. Blumenthal writes that:
[D]emocratic leaders should find ways to engage the many Chinese who embrace liberal values, so that when and if the CCP really does face a ruling crisis, there are Chinese democrats ready to take the helm – and we know their cell phone numbers.
So: surround them with missiles, funnel money (and prizes) to oppositional forces inside the country, and wait for “another Tiananmen.”
Given Western advocacy of such a game plan, it is hardly surprising that some—although certainly not all—Chinese Communist Party loyalists should continue to regard human rights discourse as Western propaganda designed to obscure geopolitical and economic fundamentals. It is not in the least surprising that they should respond by continuing to ratchet up their own military strength and tightening surveillance of internal, oppositional forces. From Zhongnanhai’s perspective, to do otherwise would be grossly negligent of the Party’s historic duty. And thus, entirely predictably—though, it is to be hoped, in only a small way—the award to Liu Xiaobo helps tighten the coils of suspicion, recrimination and insecurity, both within China and worldwide.
Finally, the award also brazenly ignores the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will, which endowed a prize for:
[T]he person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
It is barely necessary to point out that the 2009 laureate, Barack Obama, has continued to increase rather than to abolish or reduce standing armies (although it could be argued that European and African adulation of him did serve momentarily to increase “fraternity between nations.”) It is hard to see the 2010 laureate as qualifying under any aspect of the relevant rubric. He may be a fine human being, unjustly treated, yet the award risks inching us closer to the kind of catastrophic conflict that, we may easily infer, Nobel hoped the world might avoid.
Kampala, January 1, 2011