Pearson’s 1957 prize created unrealistic expectations for Canadian foreign policy that still exist today. The country could have used more skepticism.
The skeptical U.S. response to President Barack Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize is refreshing. It demonstrates a degree of realism in America’s understanding of world affairs that has been lacking in Canada ever since Lester B. Pearson received the same award in 1957.
This is not to suggest that Pearson was unworthy. As Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, his ability to generate consensus around a proposal to impose a peacekeeping force between warring Egyptian and Israeli factions in the area surrounding the Suez Canal was critical. Although the eventual United Nations resolution to establish the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was largely written by the U.S. ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, only Pearson – well respected by all, supported by an exceptional staff, and from a country with a reputation for impartiality – could have shepherded the idea through the General Assembly and convinced a hesitant secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld, to coordinate the global response.
The negative consequences of Pearson’s Nobel Prize win, the latter of which President Obama will likely escape, were two-fold. First, the Nobel Committee’s decision to present the award to a sitting politician effectively introduced partisan politics into a strategic arena for which it was entirely unsuited. Pearson, who had become leader of the then opposition Liberal Party, was hardly congratulated by Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. In fact, in a fit of puerile jealousy (hardly different from the responses of many of Obama’s staunchest opponents), Diefenbaker refused to attend a celebratory dinner in his rival’s honour.
By interpreting Pearson’s international recognition as a personal affront, Diefenbaker effectively prevented Canadians from engaging in reasoned dialogue over the long-term implications of efforts to institutionalize a relatively new approach to conflict resolution. The Diefenbaker government’s desire to upstage the Liberals, and Pearson’s inability to bridge the partisan divide, ended the post-Second World War consensus on foreign policy that had enabled the Department of External Affairs to plan strategically.
In addition to its impact at the strategic level, Pearson’s achievement encouraged expectations of Canada’s ability to effect change in the world that were unrealistic. Caught up in the thrill of international acclaim for one of their own, Canadians embraced United Nations peacekeeping as a national vocation and success story. The UN’s disappointments and failures, including the ignominious dismissal of UNEF from Egypt in advance of the Six Day War, and the persistent inability of the member states to fund their missions adequately, were conveniently ignored in the national narrative.
Similarly, a mythological interpretation of so-called Pearsonian internationalism soon developed, depicting Canada’s approach to world affairs as based on a uniquely unselfish sense of morality. That Pearson was a tactician, a military veteran who played an integral role in the founding of NATO, and a political actor willing to temporarily ignore an evolving humanitarian crisis in Hungary for the sake of Canadian national interests was overlooked.
The Nobel Peace Prize of 1957 recognized the value of hard work and compromise: a willingness to pursue the possible at the expense of the ideal. It highlighted the importance not just of diplomacy, but also of diplomats themselves – of the need to invest in the foreign service if a state hoped to make a difference in international affairs. The ultimate failure of UNEF highlighted the limits of Canada’s global influence: Ottawa should never have been expected to be a star on the world stage on a consistent basis, nor should Canadians have expected a sequel to Pearson’s achievement any time soon.
The lack of substantive, critical questioning of the meaning of Pearson’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize encouraged Canadians to believe that they could have it all: international acclaim, consistent worldwide influence, and a global governance structure that was in line with their interests. It spawned a relentless and fruitless campaign to revisit Pearson’s public success and an unnecessary national obsession with the need for international recognition of Canadian foreign policy achievements that remains to this day.
Americans and others around the world who have questioned whether Barack Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize at this point in his political career have therefore done the United States, and the international community, a service. Criticism of the U.S. president’s lack of tangible accomplishments draws attention to the limitations of what one man, and even one country, can achieve on the world stage over a short period. Greater skepticism can only reduce future expectations, leaving Obama with increased flexibility in making foreign policy decisions in line with what is possible rather than in pursuit of an impossible ideal.