On the morning of May 28, 2014, I woke, meditated, decided to postpone yoga, and started to gather myself to listen to President Obama’s remarks to the graduating class at West Point. Political commentators kept saying that this would be a speech that would define an Obama doctrine of foreign policy. Why people do not know what the Obama doctrine is, mystifies me. He articulated it in his Nobel lecture in 2009. Still, I waited to see how he would answer his critics who complain that there is no overall structure to his foreign policy.

Maya Angelou. Credit: Creative Commons.

Then there was an interruption in the morning. Maya Angelou was dead. Angelou a poet, national treasure, wise-woman, mentor to all humanity, a force of nature had made her transition and joined the ancestors. After 86 remarkable years, she had left this earth and gone to her well-earned rest. Her words have been with me all of my adult life. They have been with my children their entire lives. Her words nourished my soul and gave me strength to carry on when times were hard. I was familiar with her voice and with her words. Her well-known words:

I’m a woman
Phenomenally,
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I was familiar with her words that remind me when I am at the bottom of my physical, mental, soul exhaustion, that after I rest, I have to get back to work:

Bringing the gifts that my ancestor’s gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave,
I rise
I rise
I rise.

At a book signing she signed my copy of Still I Rise with the word “Joy!”

However, during a retrospective of her life, I heard her voice speaking words I had not heard before.

Look heavenward and speak the word aloud. Peace. We look
to our world and speak the word aloud. Peace.

“Speak the word aloud. Peace.” It was a challenge. It was a command. These were words from her poem Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem written for the 2005 White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

I say and say again that the reason people claim that there is no continuity, no structure in President Obama’s foreign policy is because we do not speak the word “peace” aloud often enough. When we see world events sliding at breakneck speed toward violent conflict, the questions are always about whether or not, or when or under what circumstances the United States will send its warriors or establish a “no fly zone”, or provide military hardware to the side we support. The presumption is that unless we are in some way participating in violent conflict that we are doing nothing. The presumption is that the United States has the magic bullet that will fix the problem. This is especially strange since history has shown over and over that this is not the case.

When President Obama announced a time-table for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, having all but an embassy security force out by 2016, we heard the usual complaints from the usual suspects – Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). They worry that announcing a time-table will allow the Taliban to wait us out. What they fail to see is that the members of the Taliban are at home. No matter how long we– a foreign force – stay, at some point we will leave, and the Taliban knows it. An open-ended presence of the American military will not defeat the Taliban. Only a change in the quality of life for ordinary people that makes the logic of the Taliban’s existence nonsense will defeat it.

Other people ask: what are the president’s strategic goals? What are his priorities? Even if such could be articulated in a specific way, the world is too chaotic, complicated, and messy; there are too many peoples, groups, interests and identities; there are too many agendas, possibilities and combustible situations waiting for an unexpected spark to ignite revolution and violence. Broad strokes, a statement of principles and values is the best we can expect. So, once again, President Obama spoke of just peace practices and principles intended to get us to a strategic goal of “our peace and prosperity, but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.”

Consistent with his Nobel lecture, the president reserved the right to use unilateral military force “when our core interests demand it.” At the same time, he spoke of military action in the language of just war theory. “In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our action is proportional, effective and just.” Deployment of military force is not and ought not to be the first, best or only tactic for bringing the world closer to peace and prosperity. He said: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Two just peace practices involve multilateralism – working cooperatively with forces within the international system and strengthening the United Nations and other international organizations for human rights. President Obama announced that he would ask Congress to allocate up to $5 billion for a Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund. This fund would “train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” This regional approach allows other countries to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining peace in their neighborhood. He announced more aid to Syria’s neighbors and to the Syrian opposition. He called various international organizations such as NATO, the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF force multipliers.

So, going forward, an Obama doctrine built with just peace elements means a power-with approach to international conflicts rather than a power-over approach. It means that every tribe, every nation, every individual has a duty to make peace in the world. Regarding drone strikes, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and surveillance he called for more transparency and for renewed efforts to protect the innocent.

At the end of his remarks, he charged the graduates to do the right thing, to do justice. Just peace theory says: no justice, no peace. Justice is every person’s work to do. It is every individual’s duty to insist that h/er government establishes justice in all of its various iterations – distributive, restorative, retributive, commutative. I say: just peace practices also conform to just peace principles of truth, respect, and security. We can only live these principles through the virtue of courage. Maya Angelou taught us that without courage, it is impossible to practice any other virtue consistently. Without courage, we cannot speak peace out loud, we cannot get to an “amazing peace,” challenge the logic of war, and recognize a just peace paradigm shift when we see it.

When we think of President Obama’s strategic goals, we can think of them in military or in foreign policy terms, but we may also think of them in biological terms. When we consider strategy as a biological concept, we think of behaviors that allow for a species to evolve to its stronger better self. President Obama quoted President John Kennedy on “a gradual evolution in human institutions.” Such an evolution can only come when human beings evolve with courage toward an amazing peace that Maya Angelou wrote about.

Poets are an important force in bringing about human moral evolution. They are vital to civil society that provides the context that makes ideas thinkable, that gives meaning to words. Angelou spoke against war in her inaugural poem – On the Pulse of Morning. She wrote:

Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggle for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast,
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.

I say: It takes courage to:
“Speak the word aloud. Peace.”

It takes imagination and faith and perseverance to
“Look at our world and speak the word aloud. Peace.”

It takes love, radical love, to
“Look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister,
Peace, My Soul.”

Thank you Maya Angelou for your wisdom, your courage, and for your challenge. We will think of you when we work for an “amazing peace.” We will think of you when we speak the word aloud. Peace.

 

Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.


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