To say I was surprised by this is an understatement:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.
Anyone who clicks on the Barack Obama keyword at my blog will see that I’m no fan of our President’s. In fact, among the original field of Democratic presidential candidates last year, he was in a tie for last, for differing reasons, with "Crazy Mike" Gravel.
It’s not fair, of course, but my attitude about this is also shaped by what President Obama has failed to do in the area of international relations. He’s failed to close Guantanamo and other black sites. He’s failed to hasten the end of our involvement in Iraq. He’s failed to bring to justice the people who kidnapped and tortured foreigners, not to mention American citizens.
On the other hand, if you look at people who haven’t received this prize and yet deserved to, former President Richard Nixon certainly comes to mind. His thawing of relations with both the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and China have to count as some of the most important peace initiatives of the time. Yet the only prize he received, albeit vicariously, was Henry Kissinger’s prize for negotiating with North Vietnam to end the Vietnam war. Nixon’s spectacular failure to end that war, and his habit of trying to "screw" his political enemies, no doubt contributed to his being overlooked by the Nobel Committee. So what a head of state fails to do can have an effect.
Incidentally, I despise Richard Nixon. That doesn’t blind me to his accomplishments.
Newsweek‘s David Graham published an interesting article of Nobel Peace Prize winners of dubious merit. There are some, like Presidents Carter and Wilson, who I think should not be on that list, but there are plenty who deserve to be, including Kissinger. Even those, though, generally received their awards for long-term projects that didn’t come to fruition, or careers that had both positive and negative contributions to world peace. In that latter category are both Kissinger and Elihu Root, who brokered several peace treaties, but was also responsible for the conduct of the Phillipine-American War.
What I’m getting at here is that most of the winners of this prize either accomplished something concrete, or spent considerable effort trying. That wouldn’t seem to apply to Barack Obama yet. Reuters put together a list of the sort of things that he’s done since taking office that might have earned him the award. Here are the highlights:
* In April, Obama launched a plan to create a world free of nuclear weapons in a speech in the Czech capital Prague. He said the United States would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security and urge others to follow.
* In June, Obama told the world’s Muslims that violent extremists had exploited tensions between Muslims and the West, and that Islam was not part of the problem but part of promoting peace.
* Last month Obama made his first address to the U.N. General Assembly. Obama pressed world leaders on Wednesday to help confront challenges ranging from the war in Afghanistan to nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea instead of expecting the United States to do it all alone.
* In September, Obama also chaired a historic meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which unanimously approved a U.S.-drafted resolution calling on nuclear weapons states to scrap their arsenals.
Of these, most are speeches he gave. The last point about chairing the Security Council meeting on disarmament strikes me as significant, but it’s a preliminary step. For a guy who always seems to talk bigger than he walks, the speeches don’t strike me as anything remarkable.
Ironically, it’s quite likely that Obama will do something someday worthy of this prize. He certainly has the skills. His speech on race last year shows that he has the capacity to see an issue from different points of view. He’s articulate, displays a profound curiosity about the world, and seems to pride himself on being able to make political deals. While ordinary citizens like me might see him as a con artist, or as someone who always does the politically necessary or expedient thing rather than what the country needs him to do, those are characteristics that most of the world’s leaders will probably share. He’ll fit right in, in other words. That’s the sort of person who can make deals between parties that don’t agree on much of anything except the need to make a deal.
Awards usually aren’t given for potential, though. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to avoid the impression that this award came to Barack Obama because he isn’t George W. Bush, as Steve Benen observes:
It’s indicative of a degree of relief. Much of the world has wanted America to take the lead again, and they’re rightly encouraged to see the U.S. president stepping up in the ways they hoped he would. It’s hard to overstate the significance, for example, of seeing a U.S. president chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council and making strides on a nuclear deal.
However, a later Benen article included this quote from the Nobel Committee:
Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland told the AP, "Some people say, and I understand it, ‘Isn’t it premature? Too early?’ Well, I’d say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond — all of us."
Since World War II, however, the committee has strayed far from its original mandate. Between 1946 and 2008, only one quarter of the prizes (17 of 69) went to those promoting interstate peace and disarmament. An increasing number of awards (16 of 48 since 1971) sought to encourage ongoing peace processes — in line with a traditional understanding of peace — but they often intervened in processes that had born little fruit to date or still had a long road ahead. At the same time, the awards increasingly equated peace with overall human well-being.
It’s not the first time I’ve written this, but the prize wasn’t awarded to piss off George Bush. What it is about, however, may be almost as futile.
The article’s title "Dangerous Prize" reflects the author’s notion that sometimes Nobel Peace prizes awarded on the basis of aspiration have backfired, or been shown to be made mostly of hope. Even so, there seems precious little to reward at this point.
Let’s hope that Obama can live up to at least some of the Nobel Committee’s aspirations.