Some will say that Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize is premature. “What has he done?” they’ll ask.
Obama got the prize not for doing, but for being. Not for making peace, but for exemplifying something new on the world stage — the politics of dignity.
The Nobel Committee has simply made explicit what many have sensed. President Obama is the herald of a dignitarian politics. Not libertarian,not egalitarian, but dignitarian.
Dignitarian politics represents a modern synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian politics. War between these two battle-scarred, now exhausted ideologies shaped both national and international politics throughout the twentieth century. Obama is the first politician of world stature to identify and model an alternative that can meet the challenges of the twenty-first. Awarding Obama the Nobel Prize is an expression of the hope that our best chance for world peace lies in the dignitarian politics of which he is an exemplar.
What is dignitarian politics? It is the recognition that people the world over actually want dignity more than they want either liberty or equality. In policy terms, it means ensuring dignity for all — within and among nations.
Obama’s dignitarianism manifests in his inclusiveness, his style, and his manners. Domestically, dignitarian politics supersedes identity politics to embrace blacks and whites, men and women, gays and straights, young and old, rich and poor, immigrants and the native-born. The president has also made a point of reaching out to those who disagree with him both domestically and internationally.
The Nobel Prize will put pressure on President Obama to make explicit his reasoning for what has been, up till now, a largely instinctive pursuit of the politics of dignity. Dignitarian politics means not condescending to Americans or citizens of other countries. It means not treating political opponents, whether at home or abroad, with indignity. It also means extending dignity in concrete ways, both political and economic, throughout the world. In programmatic terms, the quest for dignity is usefully conceived of as overcoming rankism — the abuse of a power advantage to demean, hold at a disadvantage, or dehumanize those with less power.
Globally, Obama’s politics of dignity makes Americans safer, in contrast to policies that, by humiliating others, leave us vulnerable to retaliation. Indignities make people indignant and so predispose them to side with our enemies, if not turn against us themselves. President Obama understands that part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place. He realizes that in an interdependent world, muscular exceptionalism is a losing strategy.
Dignitarian politics has a host of immediate, practical consequences for international affairs. If President Obama is seen as reacting defensively to indignities served up by his opponents, he will appear weak. But if he goes on the offensive, not against those opponents themselves, but rather in favor of an emergent politics of dignity, at which he is a natural, he will prevail. Awarding President Obama the Peace Prize is a bet on the Nobel Committee’s part that the honor will support him in implementing the politics of dignity that he heralds.
Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.