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How a sugar maple would handle Iran

The bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize on President Obama met with considerable skepticism in the United States and abroad. Commentators complained that the prize was premature, awarded before Obama had effected any peace initiatives - or much else.


The bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize on President Obama met with considerable skepticism in the United States and abroad. Commentators complained that the prize was premature, awarded before Obama had effected any peace initiatives - or much else.

These cavils are ill-placed. Who can deny that this president has changed the climate in international affairs? He has made it clear to nations both friendly and hostile that the United States will be more of a partner and less of a martinet seeking to impose its values across the globe. He has lowered the temperature of the global conversation through his statements, which are actions of a kind, and signaled a willingness to listen.

My hope is that the president, in his quest for peace, will look beyond his phalanx of foreign-policy advisers. As he considers America's role in the world, he'd benefit from a more profound and ancient perspective - that of nature. Mother Nature retains the best existential track record in the universe, stretching back to long before there were nations, families, or even human beings. She merits a hearing.

When anthropologists contemplate foreign policy, they portray the battle for international supremacy in terms of the behavior and evolution of animals. Since, genetically, we are 99 percent ape, the reversion to animal analogies is 99 percent inevitable.

My vantage point on global power is framed by gardening and botany. In my garden, I marvel at the continuous skirmishing for dominance pitched by plants, trees, and grasses. The cunning, weaponry, and tactics used in plant warfare are magnificent and terrible - enough to send the Jolly Green Giant running for his life. I hope Obama will take the time to study this green battleground. (He does have a garden, I understand.)

G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixonian plumber, said of the contest of nations (reverting to animal analogy), "Out there in the Atlantic, it's not Charlie the Tuna; it's Jaws."

The same is true in the plant world. The rose's thorns, the cactus' prickles, the vine's choking tendrils, and the Venus flytrap's yawning maw are not genetic couture, but an arsenal of weapons in the life-and-death battle for the resources of sun, soil, and water.

Rooted to one spot - unable to flee, take shelter, or chase after food - plants must defend themselves and battle for dominance while never leaving home. Dominance? Yes. Plants are natural-born imperialists.

Obama stresses that engagement with other countries is preferable to a win-or-lose approach; dialogue and diplomacy to coercion and force; coexistence to conflict. The president has extended, as he put it, an open hand rather than a closed fist - most notably, to Iran, Palestine, North Korea, China, Latin America, Cuba, Myanmar, and Russia. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly, he asserted, "No one nation can . . . dominate another nation."

To predatory nations, I fear this sounds more like Charlie the Tuna than Jaws. So far, the president's olive branch has yet to bear fruit, or olives.

Obama's open-hand approach contrasts with President Ronald Reagan's closed-fist reductionism. Reagan once described his Cold War strategy as "We win and they lose" - doubtless with a genial smile. Reagan's zero-sum calculus helped yield a bumper-crop of new democracies in Eastern Europe.

Nature offers an outstanding lesson in global realpolitik. Every natural environment constitutes a win-lose situation. Succession, a central premise of ecology, refers to the sequence of plant life in an environment. Over time, as various species battle it out, succession culminates in the climax period - a prolonged state of stability in an ecosystem.

The great forests are called climax forests, in which one tree is, literally, on top. The sugar maple is an example. In the upper Midwest, this efficient harvester of sunlight - a monopolist, really - is so dominant that sugar maple forests cover thousands of square miles. In the West, white pine species reign over still larger areas.

However, as any preacher will tell you, nothing in this world lasts. Fires, disease, soil depletion, or superior species will eventually force a slow collapse of the top tree, regardless of its benign ecological qualities. This natural regime change can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few hundred million years, but succession inevitably wins, and the climax forest ultimately succumbs. If it didn't, there would be no diversity, but rather a global monoculture - the ultimate natural calamity.

Dictatorships and totalitarian states are quintessential monocultures, using much of their resources for quashing individuality and the open exchange of ideas. What makes the United States best qualified to dominate the world scene is its extraordinary range of races, ethnicities, religions, and ideas, with rights secured by the Constitution. If one nation must dominate - and, by nature's rules, it will - which would you choose? China? Italy? Saudi Arabia?

I do not propose that the United States monopolize the global forest. Rather, with its towering ideals and strength, it can provide a protective mantle of shelter and safety to the peace-loving nations of the world, in all their glorious biodiversity.

Reagan was determined to weed out the encroaching kudzu of totalitarianism, and he did. At the time, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov declared his "Star Wars" plan "insane." Perhaps the scheme was unbalanced; it sure unbalanced the Soviet Union. I wonder if Reagan was a gardener.

President Obama, cerebral and idealistic, sees lurking in every demagogue a constitutional scholar struggling to get out. He thinks if he behaves in a civilized manner, others, awed by his shining example, will eagerly follow suit. But the wayward rulers with whom the president is attempting to engage lack his high motives, hopeful view of human nature, and innate good manners.

Failing to grasp the ethical and ecological asymmetry among nations, President Obama risks not seeing the climax forest for the trees. The Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians, Russians, et al, meanwhile, are taking full advantage of our novice gardener in chief.

Today, as the president accepts the Nobel Peace Prize, may he remember that peace and stability come from strength. As it is in nature, so it is among nations: Deference and acquiescence will land you on the endangered species list. Stroll through a pine or maple forest at your local arboretum, and see if any other tree is growing there. Or, if you still don't believe me, ask Mother Nature what happened to Charlie the Tuna.