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By envisioning a world of peace, we will help create it

Posted by Andrew S. Kanter, MD, MPH, FACMI on December 10, 2009


I, like many people, spent the early part of this morning in bed watching President Obama receive the Nobel Peace Prize. I was struck by the contrasts and conflicting aspects of his speech. I was only a medical student working for IPPNW when I attended the Nobel ceremonies in 1985. I had been a long time member of PSR since my undergraduate days at UCLA, but had only recently taken a year before entering medical school to become the IPPNW Medical Student Liaison. This was the first time that a medical student was working full-time with the organization, and I was honored to be included in the 1985 Peace Prize ceremonies in Oslo.

It seems that much has changed in the ceremony in the last 24 years. The stage is more colorful, the technology more advanced, and the modern music was lovely. However, what struck me most about the lecture was the change in its tone. President Obama’s lecture struck me as being full of contradictions. Yes, it was a beautiful essay on America’s role in supporting peace, and the important strides that have been made over time, but it was also a lecture on the necessities of reality.  It was unlike Drs. Lown and Chazov’s visionary call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Instead it was a reminder of the dangerous world we live in and the need for diligence and perhaps even violence to protect peace. On one hand, he lauded the work of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the people who stood up and took a risk to create the United Nations. On the other hand, he explained that non-violence would not have stopped Hitler or al Queda, and that at times countries must go to war to protect themselves. Yet, as the Nobel Committee pointed out, here he stood as a tangible example of the success of King’s effort. Taking risks to build a better world sometimes means not being realistic.

I think this was one of the most striking differences between today and 1985. IPPNW had just had tremendous success with educating leaders and the public about the risks of nuclear weapons. The US-USSR relationship was improving, there was a mutual ban on nuclear testing, and IPPNW was recognized for its role by the UN and the Beyond War award. The audience in Oslo was filled with physicians from around the world who were moved by the moral argument put forward by our co-presidents. The day before, a Soviet journalist collapsed in sudden cardiac arrest and was treated together by Drs. Lown and Chazov (an incidentally by several former medical students in IPPNW who were then residents, along with other IPPNW cardiologists). His survival was a testament to how working together across the barriers imposed by society at the time can make a difference and actually save a life.

Although at the end of his talk he tried to raise our expectations by asking,  "Let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls."  But for us to move beyond only what we think is possible… to the place where we dream of what the world can be, will require less rationalization and more practicing what we preach. It will take risk. It was thinking that it was possible to have a world without nuclear weapons--where we can live together with our brothers and sisters in peace--that motivated me to be involved with PSR and IPPNW for almost 30 years.

He mentioned efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to seek a world without them, but he focused only on the US support for the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and recent efforts with Russia. He did not commit himself to the call he made in Prague, to eliminate all nuclear weapons or to work for a nuclear weapons convention.

His mere presence on that stage was a testament to Hope and visionaries like Martin Luther King. I hope that others will see the vision in who he is and in his message and help him become the leader who will truly bring about a world beyond nuclear weapons and war, and be deserving of the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Andrew S. Kanter, MD MPH

Physicians for Social Responsibility Board Member


- Director of Health Information Systems/Medical Informatics
Millennium Villages Project, Earth Institute, Columbia University
- Asst. Prof. of Clinical Biomedical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology
Columbia University

For Identification Purposes Only


Javier said ..

Nuclear weapons are an issue that concerns every single one of us, from a new born baby to yourself, so make your plea! And help free the world from nuclear weapons! It is your voice that speaks out for the world's future! Go to: It won’t take you more than 1 min.

August 9, 2010
Xanthe Hall said ..

This is what we have to crack: the idea that non-violence could not have dealt with the REAL baddies. I contend that if we learnt how to use non-violence effectively then we could reach a point where we could defend ourselves against tyrannical regimes and terrorists without the disproportionate loss of life we have seen in past wars. There has to be a better way. And this will be part of the thinking involved in abolishing nuclear weapons. Starting to negotiate a nuclear weapons convention will address the question of deterrence which is the root of our present militaristic thinking.

December 12, 2009
Michael Christ said ..

Thank you Andy for that helpful perspective.

December 11, 2009
James Wariero said ..

Andy- Obama has to tread contradictory political realities as President of the US, I think there are ways in which justifying his Nobel Peace Prize by talking about treaties whose success will involve the willingness of others (read Putin) may reduce the likelihood of that willingness. By reserving the specifics of the steps he intends to take, he shows the others at the negotiating table that he doesn't come with a fixed mind and a time-table based on vanity related to the Nobel.

December 11, 2009
Andrew Kanter said ..

Oh, BTW, my titles are for identification purposes only and imply no endorsement by Columbia University or the Earth Institute. I am also a board member of PSR.

December 11, 2009

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