[This is not intended to be a political piece, it's not anti-right or pro-left, but intended to demonstrate the benefits of travel.]
It comes as a surprise for me to watch the reactions to the awarding of the The Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama. Not because I think he doesn’t deserve it but actually because I think he does.
I whole-heartedly agree with what I believe is a rather astute choice; a choice that demonstrates that the Nobel Committee is far from out-of-touch, but actually strongly in-touch with what goes on at ground level, on street corners across the globe. From what I have seen, this Nobel Prize is not an award for Obama’s work as president, but everything leading up to it. I say this as a guy who’s been traveling around the world at street level, for the better part of the last three and a half years. The media’s view and the street view, I’ve learned, are often two entirely different things.
Ultimately the question that the Nobel Selection Committee must ask is, ”Who has done the most in the previous year to enhance peace in the world?” While there is certainly countless individuals from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe that are deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize, no one has done more for peace this year than Obama when measured on a global scale.
I left on a solo, independent journey around-the-world in 2006, with only my then virgin passport, a backpack and a plane ticket to China. As a young American on his first overseas experience I have been greeted warmly as an individual in every country and every culture; though prior to Obama’s election, often at the mention of The United States as a country, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and especially George W. Bush, the talk turned critical, I turned defensive and I found myself continually making excuses for the ‘American way of life.’
Suffice it to say, from the chai stands of India to the kebab shops of Qatar, much of the world had (and has) lost faith in America. Talking with people from the dusty cafes in Nairobi to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, I learned that when America has been at its best, it has shown as a beacon of hope in all that is possible, and the enduring spirit of America, the belief that better days are always ahead, served to lift the spirits of many, but since the turn of the century, as the lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance, coupled with a big mouth, resonated from America—personifying the now enduring stereotypes of all Americans–the world’s view of the US, and the hope it had inspired, was marginalized and eventually manifested itself in, what Obama recently called, “reflexive anti-Americanism worldwide.” The open armed embrace for Americans traveling abroad had become a cold shoulder, and I’ll tell you from personal experience, I’ve felt it more than once.
Things changed in 2008. As the US election approached, as I made my way through the streets of Indonesia, the world’s curiosity turned to palpable excitement as it became clear that Obama may win. His victory in November of that year, nearly instantly changed the tone of everyone’s greeting when I mentioned ‘I am an American.’ The first question I was typically asked changed from, “Did you vote for Bush (skeptical)?” to “What do you think about Obama (hopeful)?” Obama’s campaign of hope changed the world’s view of America and inspired people to hope not just for change in America, but change in their local communities and lives. I heard a collective sigh of relief from the streets of Melbourne to the tea shops of Shanghai the day of Obama’s election. Nearly overnight, Obama and his message of hope change the atmosphere of the conversations I had with strangers on the street, and thus changed the tone of dialogue in much of the world.
“In a short time he has been able to set a new tone throughout the world and to create a readiness for dialogue,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel observed today in The New York Times.
You can’t create peace if no one is open to dialogue. This new world climate, not only allows Obama to continue his work as president on climate change, nuclear disarmament, and such, but also gives the rest of us in the world an opportunity to roll up our sleeves and pitch in on the work needed in our own backyards.
From my vantage point on the streets of the world, one year ago today the world was not ready for dialogue, and it would have been hard to believe then that one person could be responsible for changing the way people talk on nearly every street corner in the world. Billions of dollars are spent by governments and corporate advertisers to try and change the mind of the average person on the street, and Obama did it as just one person.
Obama has inspired much of the planet and the direct result, though not a tangible peace accord or the end of a war, is instead a shift away from the negative thought patterns that consumed many of us, and with that his vision has opened up a better space for all of us to move forward on the biggest of global challenges we face.
I’m not privy to what goes on in the halls of government, but I can tell you what it feels like here on the streets.
Obama did all of this before he spent a single day as president, and it is for that, that he is deserving of the award.
Big changes don’t always come in big boxes.
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