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Conflict Resolution Institute

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Nobel Peace Prize

Barack Obama

On October 9, 2009, Andy Borowitz made an interesting, if satirical connection. His column headline read, "Nobel Insiders: Beer Summit Sealed it for Obama" (Borowitz, 2009). He 'quotes' Agot Valle, a Norwegian member of the five-person Peace Prize committee:

'The committee was definitely split down the middle...' but... 'Someone brought up the beer summit, and we all agreed that that was awesome...' Ms. Valle said she hoped that Mr. Obama's victory would be seen not only as a victory for him, but 'as a tribute to the healing power of beer.' (Borowitz, 2009) 

Obama's approach to conflict has invited commentators to observe his style and assert that he is the Conflict Resolution President, capital CRP. Some have explicitly analyzed his dealings with Iran and with the Israel Palestine conflict. Others have petitioned him to use and promote conflict resolution skills as the leader of the nation. Borowitz's column connects two separate events surrounding the President and suggests two pieces of evidence that might provide some insight on this debate over the President's skills: Is he the CRP? If so, what type of conflict resolution skills does the President use?

For over two weeks during the summer, the media was overcome with furor surrounding the controversial arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., by Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley and the ensuing controversy. Evidence: a Lexis Nexis search of "Major U.S. and World Publications" using the terms "James Crowley" and "Henry Louis Gates" yields no fewer than 339 results (about twenty-four articles per day). The conflict escalated when President Obama asserted the Cambridge Police had 'acted stupidly' and then finally subsided after the President hosted the 'Beer Summit' for all parties involved.

What is notable about the Beer Summit controversy is that the President was engaging in three separate conflicts – the conflict between the Sergeant and the Professor, the conflict between himself and the Sergeant, and the conflict between himself and the media over their persistent focus on his words, "acted stupidly." After defending the remarks during an interview with ABC's Terry Moran, President Obama initially refused to discuss the issue anymore, then later relented when he personally telephoned Sergeant Crowley to discuss that wily phrase. During that phone conversation, Sergeant Crowley suggested to the president a conversation over beer, a suggestion the President later took seriously when he invited Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley to join him at the White House for a beer (The American Presidency Project, 2009b). On July 30, the 2009 Beer Summit took place at the White House when Professor Gates, Sergeant Crowley, Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama enjoyed a round of beer for about forty-five minutes (Cooper & Goodnough, 2009). Following the Summit, the media focus finally relented, the Sergeant and the Professor set a lunch date, and the American Nation moved forward on Obama's healthcare and energy initiatives. Conflict resolved.

Or was it? The President made a practical distinction between the three conflicts surrounding the Summit. The President adapted his conflict resolution strategy to deal with each of these conflicts separately. In dealing with the conflict between the Professor and the Sergeant, the President demonstrated a natural affinity for mediation. And the controversy was unique in that it presented itself as one of the few times the American public and the world gained near first hand insight into the interpersonal conflict management skills of the American President. On the one hand, the President was engaged in an interpersonal conflict with Sergeant Crowley who had been displeased to hear the words 'acted stupidly' from the President's mouth. While no one knows exactly what exchange occurred between the Sergeant and the President, the President acknowledged a new-found respect for the difficult position the Sergeant was experiencing. The President together with the Sergeant worked toward and seemed to achieve some sort of resolution.

On the other hand, as primary party to the interpersonal conflict between himself and the press, Obama seemed to lose that knack for conflict resolution altogether, instead appearing to be a natural conflict avoider. His limited response and his attempts to divert attention away from the seemingly absurd focus on his words – 'acted stupidly' – revealed the President's unwillingness or inability to empathize with an opponent – the press – whose actions he simply did not understand. His responses left the distinct impression that he decidedly did not have either the patience or the desire to resolve the interpersonal conflict between himself and some members of the Press.

This is not to suggest that the President ought to have tried to resolve the conflict in any other way than what he did. Perhaps he was insightful enough to understand the monumental task it would have been to divert press attention, and so he chose to navigate around the obstacle rather than confronting it head on. Perhaps he did not have the energy, with the healthcare and energy initiatives and two wars consuming much of his time. Regardless, the President's inclination for action – make change efficiently, recognize barriers when you see them, and adjust your strategy accordingly – leaves a distinct impression of conflict avoidance.

So here we can conclude that when faced with an opposition with whom he can empathize, the President demonstrates a natural affinity for conflict resolution. And as for the conflict between the Professor and the Sergeant, the President also demonstrated an affinity for mediation. He was able to bring the Parties together and host a conversation between the gentlemen. But the President's conflict resolution skills did not seem to extend to the way he handled the press. That shows us that in some ways, Obama is the CRP and in other ways, he may not be; in other words, that leaves the question open.

On December 10, President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize amidst months of controversy over even his nomination, let alone the Committee's decision to award him the Prize and his subsequent acceptance of the award. The Committee's announcement sparked serious debate in the media and academia about whether the President had actually done anything to deserve the award, launching the President into a conflict in which he probably had no interest being involved.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee does not release their notes detailing the rationale behind the Award, except through the statement released on the day the Award was announced. According to that statement, Obama was awarded the Prize "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Some commentators have suggested this statement was meant to create momentum for resolution of the Middle East conflicts. Or perhaps the prize was meant to reconnect the United States with our European allies based on a renewed sense of cooperation. Or the Prize may have actually been based on the President's character and leadership style.

Tim Sisk, Conflict Resolution Professor and Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, suggests that Obama was awarded the Prize because he changed the discourse in the international arena away from unilateralism and back channel diplomacy toward more Norwegian values and norms that include open dialogue and multilateralism. As conflict resolution practitioners and educators, we know the importance of communication and dialogue.

Sisk also noted the historic tendency for the Committee to attempt to link with peace other issues seemingly unrelated. For example, Wangari Muta Maathai was awarded the Prize in 2004 for her work related to climate change, as was Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. Muhammad Yunis and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Prize in 2006 for their work on local-level individual economic development. So the Committee has used the prize to link climate change with peace and economic development with peace. Is it possible the Committee was linking dialogue with peace in order to highlight this connection for the global community? If that is so, then we can say the Award might demonstrate that Obama is the CRP.

On the one hand, Obama seemed a natural mediator and was able to successfully resolve the conflict with Sergeant Crowley. The President has also engaged the leadership of Iran, Cuba, China and Venezuela in dialogue. The President engaged in some aspects of collaborative governance by initiating Town Hall Meetings over the healthcare issue and in the way he dealt with Congress to shape the bill. And in the midst of the controversy over Reverend Wright's rhetoric, the President validated the sources of resentment on all sides of the issue.

On the other hand, he may not have the practical skills or wherewithal to engage in interpersonal conflict with an adversary he simply cannot understand and with whom he does not seek to empathize – the Press. If the President prefers to avoid conflict with the Press because he cannot empathize with its members or because he does not anticipate he can persuade some sort of accommodation, he will find himself in rather uncomfortable conflict situations in the future as he will most undoubtedly be confronting the Press over other issues that will not be as easy to resolve as conducting a Beer Summit. On a much larger scale, the President has also authorized some 30,000 additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan, not exactly a cue to the adversary of a willingness to engage in dialogue.

And even though the US has begun its withdrawal from Iraq, the extent to which that withdrawal can be interpreted as conflict resolution is tenuous at best. It begs the question, "Resolution for whom?" Perhaps the withdrawal resolves some conflict for the Iraqi government, while creating more at the same time. The same might be true for the average Iraqi citizen. And as for the personal political conflict the President continues to experience over the decision, it is clear the conflict simply shifted from one group to another. Although the troops are being withdrawn, the resolution remains elusive.
Both analyses suggest the President does engage in conflict resolution skills professionals in the field also employ: dialogue, active listening, reflective listening, consensus building, empathizing, validating the Other perspective, etc.... As professionals in the field and as students, we ourselves model these same skills in order to influence others and in order to teach others through action. So it becomes clear that Obama is a president that actively and routinely uses conflict resolution skills, and sometimes he employs them across situations and contexts.

We have already begun to witness the effective use of dialogue in the international community. And the Beer Summit demonstrates the President's natural affinity for mediation between two parties. At the same time he has also led in the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the conflict with al Qaeda. But the analyses suggest that perhaps the question, "Is he the CRP?" is the wrong question to ask altogether. The nature of state leadership implies contact with conflict. Perhaps what we want to know is what kind of Resolver is he? Or perhaps we ought to ask instead, "How can the President maximize the effectiveness of his strong conflict resolution skills and how can he compensate where those skills are weak?" In other words, how is he the Conflict Resolution President and how could he be better?