General, philosopher, emperor

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama, which seemed so premature and out of place when it was announced two months ago, turned into an important historical event because of the American president himself. Obama, who was sworn-in just last January, is not only the commander-in-chief of a country that is fighting two wars of which outcome is still uncertain, but is also facing such strong opposition on the domestic front that it is unclear whether he will be able to introduce the reforms that he has announced. Obama, in other words, is suspended between success and failure on all fronts. In the best case, one could say that the decision to give the award to Obama (by five Norwegians, let’s not forget) could reflect the hope that the American president will want to lead his country and, consequently, the world, toward a brighter future. It is as if they are replying to George W. Bush’s dogma of pre-emptive war with an award for «pre-emptive peace.» More cynical observers believe that Obama was given the award in an effort by the Norwegian committee to curry favor or to bask in his reflected glory – and that the only thing they achieved was to degrade the prize. History is full of cases in which weak nations try to get on the good side of powerful kings and emperors with gifts and flattery. A particularly good example of this is Nero’s tour of Greece in AD 66-68, when the natives even organized Olympic Games outside their normal schedule so that the Roman tyrant could compete. Of course, he won every event, from chariot races to poetry. And Nero was so grateful for the recognition of his talents that he granted the Greeks their freedom. Obama, however, did not come to Europe as Nero. He came as Marcus Aurelius, as a general, a philosopher and an emperor. He came to speak of the co-existence of good and evil, of the effort to protect human values – even by force if necessary. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher and one of the most capable and respected emperors in history, knew all about good and evil but he never felt the need to make excuses for his role as a general nor for Rome’s wars. War was always a natural condition for human beings. That is why it is interesting to note that a mere 2,000 years later, the Roman leader’s «heir» feels obliged to justify his own role and that of his country on the international stage. «I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace and our effort to replace one with the other,» Obama said at the award ceremony in Oslo last Thursday. «We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified,» he added. This «is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.» The president referred to the role the United States has played as the country «helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.» He assured the world of his determination to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to bring the United States in line with its commitments to human rights. «We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend,» he declared. «And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.» He went a step further, toward intervention in domestic troubles, saying «peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.» Obama spoke frankly to the world – as commander-in-chief of the sole superpower and as a thinker. He described things as they are and as he would like them to be. «Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace,» he said. However cynical we may be, when we hear such words, we can tell the difference between leaders. As Marcus Aurelius noted in his «Meditations,» the sole thing worth living for is «justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive and a disposition that welcomes whatever comes as being necessary.» And, in pondering Obama’s words, we should bear in mind that Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-general, was the last of the «good emperors.» Philosophers in power are rare, war is eternal.

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