Obama’s Nobel speech excessively blurred morality with psychology · 13 December 2009

Barak Obama delivered a noble and realistic speech in accepting his Noble Prize except that in covering some major issues of the day (and one or two of history) it was often disjointed and self-serving, and glossed over a few inconvenient facts!

BUT it might be argued this is what leadership (and power) is all about: convincing yourself and your team that you are on the right side and path. Making an effort to persuade members of the other team that they might be on the wrong side and path is only of secondary concern. This approach can lead to great success. BUT (another but!) it can also be very dangerous as Adolf Hitler and his team ultimately discovered.

Obama began by acknowledging the considerable controversy that has accompanied the award and the fact that he is a Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars. He said that he had an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other. He spoke about how the concept of a just war emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

Obama’s speech was essentially about the interplay of morality and power. What was missing was much about the interplay of psychology and power and, in particular, he seemed intent in giving a moral dimension to some major world issues that are more psychological in nature.

Separating moral and psychological issues is not necessarily easy. I made an attempt in my book, Dictatorial CEOs & their Lieutenants – Inside the Executive Suites of Napoleon, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao. Bob Johnston, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, wrote in his Foreword to my book that it eschews judgment and moralizing and is about what is rather than what might be and is ?onsequently somewhat Machiavellian. But, he said, the book has so much to offer both the history buff and the psychologist; and act as a cautionary tale to the aspirant to power.

In my view, splitting morality and psychology assists in analysis and in making good judgements. I agree with Prof. Alex Wearing ( Psychology Department, University of Melbourne, and a consultant to the Australian Department of Defence) when he says that in international relations there is often too little account of psychological issues.

My following comments risk straying too far into politics, but I think that Obama has shown leadership foolishness in evoking the support of morality on two issues in which the other teams also believe they have morality on their side, whose stance is understandable in psychological terms, and which have the power (now or in the future) to do something about it.

On these two issues, Obama has unnecessarily set himself up for ultimate leadership failure. If he thought more in terms of the psychological reaction of the other side he would have been more circumspect.

The first issue was NATO. He spoke about the leaders and soldiers of NATO countries, and other friends and allies and the capacity and courage they’ve shown in Afghanistan. But in many countries, there is a disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public. I understand why war is not popular, but I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That’s why NATO continues to be indispensable. That’s why we must strengthen U.N. and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries.

The sentence That’s why NATO continues to be indispensable seems to have been tossed-in here. There is no effort to explain why he thinks NATO is indispensible and he seems to imply that it is morally indispensible or why it cannot be replaced by some other arrangement.

Russia will never accept this view of NATO particularly as NATO claims that the Ukraine and Georgia will one-day be admitted as members. The wars against Napoleon and Hitler are powerfully embedded in Russian psychology, and this robust view of NATO only causes resentment, fear and strong reaction (witness Georgia). For Russia, this is as much a psychological and moral issue as is al Qaida to the US.

Further into the speech Obama raises the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them. But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.

The NATO issue may simmer through Obama’s presidencies (assuming he has two terms), but he is most likely to have actively back-down on Iran. For Iran this is both a moral issue and a psychological issue.

The prime minister of the newly assertive Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, has asked why Israel should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons if Iran cannot. Iranians of all political leanings, with knowledge of their own history, ask the same question.

While the US and others talk of sanctions the final outcome is inevitable. Asked in a meeting last week with U.S. troops in Kirkuk about using military force to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Robert Gates (US Defence Secretary) expressed skepticism over whether such action would work:

“Let me just say, you never take any options off the table. But the reality is that any military action would only buy some time, maybe two or three years,” he said. “So at the end of the day the way to avoid a nuclear-armed Iran is to put together a package of incentives and disincentives that persuade the Iranian government that they would actually be less secure with nuclear weapons than if they had them.” He added: “If we learned anything from Iraq over the past six years, it is the inherent unpredictability of war.”

Yet, Obama treated the Iran issue as if it were a morality tale rather than an issue of the psychology of power, and gave himself little room to back-down in the face of reality.

So, why did Obama virtually ignore the reality of psychology why trying to deliver a realistic speech about war?

For one thing, it makes a better speech war, moral tales etc appeal to our emotions more than an analysis of complex psychological issues and inspires your team to support you. It was a great propaganda opportunity.

But, it also might be that this is more in Obama’s comfort zone. He is still relatively young and inexperienced.

Whatever the case, Obama has needlessly set himself up for failure. He would not be the first leader to let PR run-ahead of the ability to deliver. His speech was about trying to establish some moral authority, but by applying the concept too broadly he will end up undermining it.