The Swedish Academy’s announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize was being awarded to President Barack Obama met with considerable skepticism both in the United States and abroad. Commentators complained that the prize was premature, bestowed before President Obama had effected any peace initiatives—or much else. The President said that he viewed the prize as a kind of IOU, saying he could “accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”
I contend these brickbats are ill-placed. Who can deny that this President has changed the climate in international affairs? He has made it clear to nations both friendly and hostile that the United States will now be more of a partner and less of a martinet, seeking to impose its values across the globe by fiat. He has lowered the temperature of the global conversation, suitably enough, through words—and statements and declarations are actions of a kind.
President Obama has also signaled a willingness to listen on the part of the United States. This reminds me of the observation of C.G. Jung, the pioneering psychoanalyst, that receptivity is itself yet another form of action.
My hope is that the President, in his quest for peace, will look beyond his phalanx of foreign policy advisors. As he considers America’s role in the world, he’d benefit from a more profound and ancient perspective—that of nature. Mother Nature retains the best existential track record in the universe, stretching long before there were nations, families or even human beings. She, too, deserves a hearing.
When anthropologists contemplate foreign policy, they portray the battle for international supremacy in terms of the behavior and evolution of animals. Since, genetically, we are 99% ape, the reversion to animal analogies is 99% inevitable. But in statecraft this approach is myopic at best and narcissistic at worst.
My vantage point on global power is framed by gardening, the natural landscape and botany. In my garden I marvel at the continuous skirmishing for dominance pitched by plants, trees and grasses. The cunning, weaponry and tactics used in plant warfare are magnificent and terrible—enough to send the Jolly Green Giant running for his life.
I hope President Obama, Our Gardener-in-Chief, will take the time to study this green battleground—he has a garden, I’m told—and glean its Clausewitzian lessons.
G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixonian plumber, said of the contest of nations: “When you get out in the mid-Atlantic, it’s not Charlie The Tuna out there: it’s Jaws”. (Something to remember also when the president heads to the mid-Pacific.)
The same is true of the plant world. The rose’s thorns, a cactus’s prickles, the choking vine, the yawning maw of the Venus fly trap are not genetic accidents, but an arsenal of weapons in the life and death battle for the resources of sun, soil and water.
Rooted to one spot—unable to flee, take shelter or chase after food—plants have to defend themselves and battle for dominance while never leaving home. Dominance? Plants are natural-born imperialists. Even our word “race” speaks to the rootedness of nations. Indeed, politics does end, literally, at the water’s edge.
In his speeches, President Obama expressed the view that, in U.S. relations with other countries, engagement is preferable to “win and lose”, stressing dialogue and diplomacy over coercion or force, coexistence over conflict. In articulating this new agenda, the President sounds more like Charlie The Tuna than Jaws, or Major-General von Clausewitz.
The President has reached out, as he puts it, “an open hand…not a closed fist”—most notably to Muslims, Iran, Palestine, North Korea, China, Latin America, Cuba, Burma and Russia. Obama’s use of the olive branch has yet to bear fruit—or olives.
The President has spoken of a world without nuclear weapons. When addressing the General Assembly of the U.N., he asserted, “No nation can … dominate another nation”. Obama’s open-handed approach contrasts with President Ronald Reagan’s closed-fisted reductivism of the 1980s. When a reporter asked, “What’s your position on relations with the Soviets?”, Reagan replied, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win. They lose”, doubtless with a genial smile.
The two Presidents’ worldviews are worlds apart. President Reagan’s zero-sum calculus gave rise to a harvest of new democracies in Eastern Europe. Prime Minister Putin’s bullying efforts to reassert dominance over Russia’s “near-abroad” have been feckless before the “garden” of new democracies. Putin should tend to his nation’s garden, fast overgrowing with nationalist weeds, and respect the ecology of world affairs.
Nature offers an outstanding lesson in global realpolitik. “Succession” (as in “succeed” and “success”), a central premise of ecology, is a process in any natural environment with plants. Progressing over time, in phases, as various species battle it out, succession culminates in the climax period, a prolonged, stable steady state for the eco-system.
The great forests are called “climax forests”, where one tree is, literally, on top. The Sugar Maple is a prime example. In the upper Midwest, this efficient harvester of sunlight—a monopolist, really—is so dominant that Sugar Maple forests cover thousands of square miles. In the West, White Pine species reign over still larger areas. Every natural environment constitutes a “win-lose” situation.
Ultimately, though, the climax forest runs its course, and a new process of succession begins. As if cued by the Chaos Theory playbook, the prevailing species’ dominance is subverted by a number of possible factors: changes in climate, lightning fires, blight, soil erosion, new challengers (observe the avant-garde of the plant contenders mustering at the margins of a woods near you), or human interference (e.g. logging, development).
This natural regime change can take anywhere from a week to a hundred million years. Periodically the genes of the dominant species will recombine as a form of self-defense, but succession inevitably wins and the climax forest ultimately succumbs. If it didn’t, there would be no diversity but a global monoculture—the ultimate natural calamity.
Both dictatorships and totalitarian states are quintessential monocultures, utilizing much of their resources quashing individuality and the open exchange of ideas. What makes the United States the country best qualified to dominate the world scene is our extraordinary range of races, ethnicities, religions and ideas—all guaranteed by the Constitution. If one nation must dominate—and by nature’s rules it will—whom would you chose to lead the world? China? Italy? Saudi Arabia?
President Reagan was determined to weed out the encroaching kudzu of totalitarianism, and did so. At the time, Russia’s President Yuri Andropov declared Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan as “insane”. Perhaps the scheme was unbalanced: it sure unbalanced the Soviet Union. I wonder if President Reagan was a gardener.
President Obama, cerebral and idealistic, sees lurking in every demagogue a constitutional scholar struggling to get out. He thinks that, if one behaves in a civilized manner, others, awed by his shining example, will eagerly follow suit. The wayward rulers with whom the President is attempting to engage lack his high motives, hopeful view of human nature and innate good manners. Make no mistake, Mr. President, they are aggressively expanding climax forests.
Yesterday when President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, I hope he remembered that peace and stability come from strength, and strength from dominance. Among nations, and in nature, deference and acquiescence will land you on the endangered species list. If you don’t believe me, ask Mother Nature what happened to Charlie The Tuna.
The above appeared in a shorter version in the Op/Ed section of the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 10, 2009.