Comparing calls for peace from Nobel Peace Prize laureates Malala Yousafzai and Barack Obama
“Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons.” Said Malala Yousafzai before the United Nations on, July 12th, 2013. It was her 16th birthday. One-year prior in Afghanistan she was targeted by the Taliban because of her activism in support of education and in opposition to terrorism and oppression. They boarded her school bus and shot her and her friends. Yousafzai survived being shot in the forehead. She does not seek revenge, does not call for arms against the man who shot her. “We call upon all governments to ensure free, compulsory education all over the world for every child” she said.
This month Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17, the youngest ever. Pushing away the idea of conflict as a solution to problems around the world, she stated, “Education is the only solution.” And she highlighted the importance of developed countries empowering girls and women around the world as an effective and necessary component to increasing global well-being and peace.
Yousafzai was a victim of brutal Taliban violence, and has spent the majority of her life in a region at war, but her message is that armed conflict will not bring long-term solutions to our conflicts—education will. She provides a voice for those who suffer the most from economic stagnation, oppression, and armed conflict: the women, children, and the poor who experience first hand that wars do not benefit them.
Another Nobel Prize winner, Barack Obama, presented a very different message, one of justifying the use of force in the name of national and global security. He started his acceptance speech in 2009 with an honest admission, “perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.” Since 2009, this irony has swelled immensely as the US military under Obama has now bombed seven countries in the Middle East and has vastly expanded unregulated drone assassination programs and other paramilitary operations. There is little doubt that these aggressive actions have, and are, creating the fuel for continued armed conflict in the region. Yousafzai herself even met with Obama and told him she thought drone strikes are inciting terrorism.
Obama justified war in the typical ways, good versus evil, the United States as the sole global military power altruistically standing up to terrorists and rogue states around the world for humanitarian purposes. He boasts, “The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” This certainly is the familiar narrative of American post-WWII foreign policy. But these justifications for intervention, and these stories of our empathetic motivations for war, are lies.
US foreign policy has, rather, consistently been guided to secure our own interests. To maintain hegemony over underdeveloped countries, allowing our corporations access to natural resources. Normally this means derailing social progress and the decreasing the wellbeing of the poor. “We’ve consistently opposed democracy if its results can’t be controlled. The problem with real democracies is that they’re likely to fall prey to the heresy that governments should respond to the needs of their own population, instead of those of US investors,” Noam Chomsky says about US foreign policy.
Continuing with the fallacy of American exceptionalism, Obama states: “America–in fact, no nation–can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves,” implying that the US does follow rules when it comes to foreign interventions and human rights. Not so. He continues: “America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.” These are lies. Take for example the actions of the CIA that have a long history of undermining and overthrowing progressive or democratically elected leaders and installing brutally violent and oppressive dictators friendly to American corporations.
Discussion of war and peace in the world must deal with complex realities and not settle on overly simplistic platitudes. Yousafzai’s messages for peace calls for social reform in general terms, highlighting the necessity of revolutionary changes for education and economic equality. “I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation” she said. A bold and ambitious message in a world dominated by capitalism. Obama deserves some credit for being honest about the serious challenges that face future prospects of peace: economic and social development, education, climate change, and the low probability that we will ever see a world free of war. But Obama’s arguments supporting and justifying America’s forceful foreign policy are fallacious and hypocritical. Therefore his attempt to justify war as an act of peace is better interpreted as Pro-American propaganda.
We must confront messages of peace with two questions: 1. whose voice is being represented? And, 2. does their message correspond with their actions? Yousafzai provides a powerful voice to a silenced majority, the girls, the women, and the poor who always suffer the most from war, and she acts to empower and improve the wellbeing of the people she represents. It is more obscure whom Obama is representing in his messages. But he reinforces the neoliberal dogma of America’s place in the world, a rouge superpower that acts with impunity, for its own benefit. This ideology represents the interests of the elite, the corporations that grow their profits at the expense of the poor. And Obama’s actions, the continuation of America’s forceful hegemony and military interventionism, does not promote peace; in fact, quite the opposite.
We need to hear true voices for peace. And we need the passion and the courage to turn their messages into action. Yousafzai may not have the political power or experience to address the complexity of sociopolitical solutions needed to build towards a global peace. But her messages and her actions are motivated by empathy, and a sincere desire to increase the wellbeing of those suffering most. These are the voices and the actions than can bring peace. Obama’s words and actions, rather, embody the status quo of the elite’s forceful domination and exploitation of the poor. We need accurate information and education in the developed world as much as we need it in the developing world, because this, and only this, will give the powerless and the voiceless the tools to be heard. If the citizens of the US, and other developed countries, demanded that the trillions of dollars used by their governments to wage war on developing countries were rather used to feed and educate their populations, then we could be moving towards peace.
Malala Yousafzai image credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc, distributed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 license
Barack Obama image credit: The Obama-Biden Transition Project, distributed under CC-BY-3.0 license