John Rash: America, through a diplomat's eyes

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2010 - 6:19 PM

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari says the discourse 'is getting a bit uncivilized.'

A national leader, one who believes that nearly every conflict can be negotiated, is chosen by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to receive its most prestigious prize, the one for peace.

Barack Obama? Well, yeah. But more about him later. For now, let's talk about the Peace Prize laureate who preceded the American president: former Finnish chief executive Martti Ahtisaari, a career diplomat turned politician whose 2008 selection was far less controversial than Obama's.

Ahtisaari, who over 30 years played a key role in ending conflicts on three continents, was honored as part of a recent Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Augsburg College. Despite claiming roots in Norway and Finland, he was making his first visit to Scandinavian-rich Minnesota.

In an interview, Ahtisaari reflected on many of the world's trouble spots and how the peace process is, or isn't, working. But the relationship that Ahtisaari spent the most time assessing is the one between America and its European allies. He describes those ties as "extremely vital." But he warns "we should try to behave in such a manner that we can maintain that."

Doing so may be harder than it used to be, as politics no longer stop, but often seem to start, at the water's edge. Compared with his years living in America back in the 1970s, Ahtisaari notes, today "there is a further complication in your society which I found rather unfortunate."

In what diplomats would describe as a frank exchange, he explained: "It's getting a bit uncivilized, to put it mildly."

Like many Americans, he sees the uncouthness reflected in, if not created by, our media culture.

"If you look at the media's behavior, it is becoming extremely polarized," he offered, later adding, "Your country could be much stronger internationally if it could have a bipartisan foreign policy.

"I don't think the media is encouraging it -- let's put it that way. Because where does one get the story?" On television, he said, "it's the differences that are emphasized, not the news."

The environment matters in shaping effective foreign policy. "I have always admired the intellectual debate that takes place in the United States," said Ahtisaari, who considers himself "a New Yorker, with all the positives and negatives that means," after his years at the U.N. "I enjoyed thoroughly following, and partly participating in, the intellectual discourse, when issues were debated strongly but there was an attempt to find a bipartisan foreign and security policy, which definitely is in the interest of the parties, and you could always leave certain fringes. But that has nearly disappeared."

A press that's traded skepticism for cynicism is what Ahtisaari saw in action after Obama won the Peace Prize.

"I got the calls five or 10 minutes after the announcement was made on CNN. The reporters weren't terribly excited about it. They expected I would start criticizing it. But I wasn't, because I fully realize the motivation of the Nobel Committee.

"When you look at what President Obama had been saying, I think it would be understandable that it created excitement in Oslo, and the committee wanted to give him support, and at the same time put pressure on him.

"Sometimes I think it might have been easier for the president not to get it," Ahtisaari concluded.

Instead of being an opportunity to build bipartisanship, Obama's award became, for some, an opportunity for derision, and thus division in foreign policy.

Yet to the end, Ahtisaari is, well, diplomatic about America. Obama's election shows "what capacity your country has in changing things. I can't think of any other country where this sort of political change could have taken place.

"This capacity for renewal is a remarkable thing. So I hope it bodes well for your country."

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer. He can be reached at jrash@startribune.com.

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