At a time of problematic politics on both sides of the pond, what will the impact be of Obama’s visit to South Asia and David Cameron’s trip to the Far East?
The coalition government in the UK has spent much of the last few weeks swinging the cutting axe at nearly every government department and it appears that now Cameron and his Liberal Democrat allies are for now, at least, having a change of scene. The one facing them at home is hostile and on 10 November thousands of students demonstrated violently in central London against the proposed rise in university tuition fees. Public reaction has also been negative to funding slashing of child benefit, housing benefit and the defence budget. The Church of England has raised concern over the impact on the poor from the specific benefit reduction and reorganisation that has been planned.
But Cameron and his coalition colleagues have been sipping wine and trying to secure trade deals on the other side of the world. They are not running away directly but the change of scene at a time of political unrest may well allow them a period of reflection to consider their changes. They can also catch their breath; the Government’s reforms have been rolled out continuously since the general election.
A couple of countries to the south, this week Barack Obama has chosen to spend the aftermath of the Democrats’ painful losses at the mid-term elections on 2 November meeting his old school-teachers in Indonesia. As the Tea Party basks in the glow of election success, Obama has been wooing Indonesia in a similar way to the way he courted the Muslim world in 2009.
Indonesia stands at a crossroads, geopolitically: it is the largest Muslim majority nation in the world and a massive regional player for ASEAN. It has large sway in its region through its seat on the G20 and in that sense is similar to Brazil as the most important partner in a regional club. The administration in Jakarta needs to ensure that its leadership does not become confused or stall as other local players look up to the major power and faltering on its part could lead to introversion and a failure to keep up with the interchanging pace of foreign policy discussion.
This latest outreach to the Muslim world by the US President seems to be an attempt to move policy discussion into the international sphere after such devastation domestically. Cameron and Obama are now moving on to the G20 and with the Cancun climate change summit coming up next month, both leaders will probably be quietly hopeful that they can ride out the current waves of protest and election defeat overseas.
The BBC has reported that China is unhappy at the prospect of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the imprisoned activist, Liu Xiaobo. Mr Liu has called on China to account for its actions and has been a fierce human rights activist and is now in jail, serving a sentence for ‘incitement to subvert the state’. So will the plan by the Norwegian Nobel Committee (NNC) to award Mr Liu the Peace Prize upset China? Does this mean that the Nobel Peace Prize is becoming increasingly political?
In December 2009, US President Barack Obama became the 117th recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Global reaction to the announcement was mainly negative, arguing that as Mr Obama had not even been in power for a year and had only been nominated a fortnight after moving into the Oval Office, there were insufficient reasons to honour him. Mr Obama was widely criticised for accepting the award. At the time it seemed as though his political background influenced the decision and that Scandinavia had taken a dislike to George W. Bush’s foreign policy and assertive conservatism. In short, Obama’s election had signalled a change at the top of the US government, and this change was welcomed in Scandinavia. The NNC seemed to base its decision on Obama’s policies and plans for the future. Immense pressure has been placed on the president to live up to his billing as a laureate and demonstrate his worthiness of the award. So far his progress has been uneven. He missed his own deadline on closing Guantanamo Bay prison but succeeded in ending combat operations in Iraq. He convened Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu but no deal was reached on the Israel/Palestine Peace Process.
Now the Norwegians are making noises regarding honouring the human rights efforts of Liu Xiaobo. China is unhappy. Beijing jailed Mr Liu for subversion a few weeks after Obama picked up the prize and the US and the EU have both condemned the judgment. Both have called on China to relax its militant approach to political dissidents. So what does this news mean for the Committee itself? It certainly came under criticism for last year’s choice, so it would like to steer clear of an overtly-political ceremony this year. Awarding Liu the prize would do the opposite and result in diplomatic disagreement and argument between China and the West. There is no doubt that Liu is a brave and committed supporter of human rights but the Committee is treading on unsteady ground in the run-up to the announcement of the recipient on 8 October. Its decisions carry huge significance and it must think carefully. If the NNC goes with Liu, China will accuse it of pandering to the liberal democratic policies of Europe and North America whilst Beijing critics will champion Liu as a defender of the sanctity of human rights and highlight China’s repressive regime. If the prize goes elsewhere, China will surely claim a moral victory for political persuasion; the West will complain and be left bewildered by the unforeseen choice of a committee that it sees as a vehicle for its international political ambitions.
There are other ways in which politics is linked to the award. In 1976 Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams received the prize for the work in establishing the Community of Peace People to try to work towards a peaceful resolution of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Earlier this year Corrigan joined the flotilla which tried to breach the Israeli aid blockade and reach Gaza and which ended in a violent confrontation between activists and Israeli commandoes. She has become a staunch critic of the Israeli political position and spoken up for the Palestinians.
Of course the NNC could not foresee the way in which Corrigan’s activism would manifest itself 34 year after giving her the award but her actions do show that the Peace Prize has become inextricably linked with politics. For better or for worse, its nominations reflect the political attitude of Scandinavia. Such is the prestige and gravity of the award, the honouring of the laureates can represent a stumbling block on the diplomatic tables of the world powers. The global reaction to the decision next week will be intriguing.