Magnanimity in our time - I

WEB EXCLUSIVES | October 13, 2009     

Magnanimous: nobly generous; not petty in feelings or conduct; from the Latin magnus great + animus soul (The Canadian Oxford Dictionary)

The world stage was reset with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama. While many critics have dismissed the event as nothing more than pure theatre, this seemingly bizarre choice should be welcomed as an imaginative act that may itself help pave the way for future imaginative acts in world affairs. This article is divided into two parts. Today’s piece, Part I, focusses on the virtue of magnanimity as one of the pillars of Obama’s worldview, and on why this approach is neither alien to world history nor hopelessly naïve in today’s world. In next week’s Part II, the focus will be on why Sri Lanka needs to be one of the early test cases for the kind of magnanimous leadership that the Nobel Committee quite obviously intended to bolster for the years ahead.

Emphasis upon magnanimous statesmanship is not without a meaningful historical pedigree. A classical example is the post-WW2 treatment of the Axis powers, notably with the Marshall Plan and the first manifestations of what has now evolved into the EU. Nelson Mandela’s supererogatory ethical conduct – and indeed that of millions of South Africans – towards an apartheid state and its supporting sectors is probably the strongest recent case of graciousness and generosity of character ushering in a radically new era, while avoiding the cataclysmic bloodshed that could easily have occurred. In Canada, it is not uncommon to situate the 1774 Quebec Act’s treatment of French-Canadians following England’s 1763 military victory over France as a manifestation of magnanimous statesmanship by virtue of in the way in which the Catholic religion, the French language, civil law, and a measure of self-government were accommodated – to be followed by the creation a century later of the Province of Quebec with extensive powers in the Canadian federation that was formed in 1867.

Magnanimity as a sincere posture need not be incompatible with some degree of privileging of the interests of the state or society that a statesperson represents in, and to, the wider world. This is because enlightened self-interest necessarily must be other-regarding to a significant extent, as well as cognizant of the long-term interests of any given society in common progress and in the fair treatment of other societies. At the same time, some form of pragmatism is inevitable for the magnanimous politician who has little choice but to take into account the real-world limitations on the currency of generosity and graciousness in any given strategic context.

In line with such a posture of pragmatism, magnanimity cannot be fused with either single-value or single-explanation thinking. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has argued for decades, we live in a world with a “diversity of goods,” in which incommensurability of values and principles must be accounted for even within one’s own worldview or preferred theory – let alone when reasonably held worldviews or theories are contending to persuade a decision-maker in respect of the best course of action. As such, pragmatism not only references the limiting or channelling effects of other considerations or realities, but also necessarily generates the realization that compromises are both unavoidable and ethically acceptable.

A corollary of value-pluralism and associated pragmatism is that magnanimity may not be – and very often is not – the sole reason for what is presented or viewed as a noble or generous course of action. Emphases on soft power and the benefits of engagement over unilateralist ultimata are often presented – for example, by American scholars like Joseph Nye – as an intelligent means to maintain or enhance a state’s position in the world. That which appears to be magnanimous if viewed only through the lens of concessions to one’s existing or shorter-term material interests can also be either strategically wise or moral in the more general sense of realizing that a win-win-win-win outcome is possible through multilateral cooperation. All three of the historical examples provided above (Marshall Plan, Mandela, and the Quebec Act) can easily be re-narrated as involving strategic calculations. Germany and Japan were needed in the coming Cold War confrontation. Scores of deaths would have resulted had rebellion occurred in South Africa, and if the apartheid regime’s military and police had reacted with effective brutality. The non-vengeful treatment of the French-Canadians was as much a question of the politics of the possible and a valuation of long-term stability – including the creation for the British of a bulwark against the coming American Revolution – as it was a moral choice to act with generosity.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee did not expressly cite magnanimity as an aspect of Obama’s record and approach to leadership. But if one connects the dots of the Committee’s reasons, they might well have. Those reasons formally focussed solely on what Obama has already achieved, but also clearly – if still implicitly – made the case that nobility of character, moral vision, and, yes, even inspirational words matter – and can continue to matter.

Obama has created “a new climate in international politics” where “multilateral diplomacy” and “dialogue and negotiations are preferred instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.” Obama’s “vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations” and “the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges.” As well, “[h]is diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.” Obama has “captured the world’s attention” to an extent rare in international life, and given the people of the world “hope for a better future.” Obama “is now the world’s leading spokesman” for the kinds of “international policy and attitudes” that the Committee has “sought to stimulate” for the 108 years of its existence. Finally, the Committee ends its reasons by saying: “The Committee endorses Obama’s appeal that ‘Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.’”

The Nobel Committee is clearly adhering to a rough-and-ready version of the ‘Great Man’ school of world history. Structures and circumstances do not determine – or, at least, do not wholly determine – the unfolding of time. Single individuals can channel the tides of history in ways that can profoundly change those very structures and circumstances. However, as befits the purpose of the Peace Prize, and as fits the Committee’s reasons just outlined, it is equally clear that Obama is being honoured less for already acting as a ‘Great Man’ and more for having or being a magnus animus – for showing the way as a ‘Great Soul.’

It does not take much digging to excavate a further sense in which Obama’s leadership is being lauded as magnanimous. This is the Churchillian sense in which magnanimity is most meaningfully a virtue – or at least most effectively so – when it is an attribute of the conduct of the stronger actors in a given scenario, with the classical case being that of the victor or the pending victor in war. Here we return to the Committee-cited actions – however early, fragile and indeed ambiguous – of the Obama-led US on climate change and nuclear weapons. The Committee might well also have mentioned Obama’s recent decision to close ballistic missile shield radar bases in Eastern Europe – both a magnanimous gesture toward Russia and a sensible policy decision on its own terms.

But what of the common argument that magnanimity is, or can be, code for weakness? The previous invocation of Churchill recalls his pithy ten-word philosophical summary: “In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill.” But what of the grey zones between peace and war, such as the pre-war tensions that generated another famous statement from a British Prime Minister? It is, of course, no coincidence that the title of this article alludes – ironically, lest anyone be in doubt – to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” interpretation of the 1938 Munich agreement with Hitler.

Focussing, in this context, on the US, it is indeed standard fare – whether in Republican circles, in much of American culture at large, or in the premises of dominant foreign policy thinking – to present other-regarding conduct as naïve, as leaving the US open to suckering by ignoble foreign states and forces, or even, in some cases, as Chamberlainian appeasement itself. (Indeed, some of these critics need only point to their own conduct in the domestic political realm in drawing in the magnanimous Obama on the health-care-reform file, and then giving him almost no quarter.) Recent case in point: the accusations by Republicans, including John McCain, that Obama displayed naïveté and weakness in cancelling the aforementioned Eastern Europe missile defence shield programme.

We do well to realize the relevance of such domestic drag on American foreign policy. Critics of Obama’s leadership style are themselves part of the real-world limitations that shape pragmatically available choices for Obama. Unreceptive though they may be, theirs is a challenge to be met, in the first instance, by resolute, gradual persuasion, seeking to demonstrate the benefits of generosity toward others as a source of strength for oneself – coupled with the pragmatic awareness that, when one’s interlocutors are not truly open to dialogue, magnanimity may have met its limits.

biolineCraig Scott is Professor of Law, Osgoode Hall Law School, and Director of the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security (York University, Toronto).

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