ALESSANDRIA, Italy — The world hungers for great men to liberate it from grief. They rarely arrive, and even more rarely are they appreciated at the time for what they are, usually being deprecated or opposed or mocked by their contemporaries, and left to the historians to rediscover. Gratitude, if it ever comes, ordinarily comes too late.

Or it comes prematurely, and inauspiciously. The Nobel Peace Prize given Barack Obama was a naive expression of that need for greatness. The American president, actively engaged in perpetuating the great war against terror and the Taliban — Obama has naive dreams, too — should have had the insight to decline the award politely, as inappropriate, as did Henry Kissinger’s North Vietnamese fellow laureate, Le Duc Tho, when he and Kissinger were named for the 1973 Peace Prize.

The Europeans know that they will soon be badly in need of a great man of their own. They are at a critical point in their construction of the European Union. It now seems reasonably sure that the Lisbon Treaty, reforming the terms of EU governance, will finally be put in place.

With Irish and Polish agreement to the treaty during the past few days, and despite British accord still lacking, and last-ditch opposition by the Czech president, confidence is justified that in the end a way will be found to appease or brush aside the uncooperative President Vaclav Klaus, whose public opinion does not follow him in his opposition to the treaty, and to save both the treaty and David Cameron, prospective prime minister if the Conservative Party wins the next election in Britain, from the Tory Europhobes.

When, and if, the treaty is ratified, Europe will be in need of its George Washington. It was Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president (and head draftsman of the European constitution that France and Holland voted down) who said that. (One may think that he had a certain candidate — himself — in mind.)

Europe’s president will like to see himself, and be seen elsewhere, as the leader of Europe. But he will be seen by the European national presidents as their creature, elected to do their bidding.

Nor will the chancellor of Germany, or the leaders of Europe’s two nuclear powers and U.N. Security Council permanent members, France and Britain, regard their national interests as adequately represented by a European president unless he or she should indeed be that great man or woman who today remains unrecognized.

The great are hard to discern because the greatest of them do not act from ambition but from moral conviction, an infrequently encountered quality in political circles. My remarks in this column are inspired by where I am, which is a conference on the problems presented to the world in the 20th anniversary year of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The sponsor is the World Political Forum, an organization founded by the man who caused the Berlin Wall to fall, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was not at the conference.

The group’s attention was on what may follow in our world, in which communism has collapsed and the Cold War is only embers (although some do blow on them).

Capitalism is in distress, and now widely distrusted in the form that it has assumed in recent years in the United States — and internationally as well, to the extent that the American form has been exported by means of American-promoted globalism. Many of the European participants seemed almost to assume U.S. capitalism as dead as communism. The Americans present cautioned them.

Aside from the organizers, the one who did speak of President Gorbachev was, appropriately, a Russian academic and political figure, Grigory Yavlinsky, founder of the liberal Yabloko party and a former presidential candidate in Russia.

What he said was simple and eloquent. It was that both we and history must not forget that this one man, on his own initiative, asking no one’s permission or approval, freed some 400 million people from a system of oppression that had cast a shadow over the lives lived within this political system, and under its influence, for some 70 years.

No one caused him to do this. Many opposed him, fearing the consequences of what he was doing. He did it because of his conviction that to do so was an urgent moral necessity and a moral obligation that rested upon himself as the individual in possession of the power to do so. He was thus a great man.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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