President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize today. Wow! I didn’t even know he was in the running, although to be honest, I don’t follow the nominees (or even the winners, in general) for any of the Nobel prizes. The interesting thing is all the debate and discussion that has sprung up around it. I’ve gotten into two separate discussions about it on Facebook, which is really killing me. Not everyone in each thread is friends with everyone else, so it’s having two separate conversations about the same topic. So, time to take it to the blog! Not that more than one or two people on Facebook (or anywhere, for that matter) reads this thing, but…
The main gripe isn’t that Obama isn’t a potential winner for the NPP, but rather that it is too soon to give it to him. “He hasn’t done anything yet to merit the award,” whereas previous winners were all given the prize after years of tangible contributions, thus “earning the award” for actual deeds rather than a presumption of future efforts.
Let me preface this by stating that I agree that this award is very early, and that past winners had clearly established track records of humanitarian work. Having said that, here are some of my thoughts on Obama’s surprising win, especially in the context of the committee’s comments about their choice.
First, I want to address the perception that Obama hasn’t accomplished anything to promote world peace or humanitarianism since he was elected. Probably the only concrete work toward improving world peace and disarmament were the July talks with Russia about reducing nuclear delivery vehicles and warheads – definitely good, although as noted in the Yahoo article linked, neither side has actually taken steps. I think the real contribution is intangible, and one that many (if not most) Americans either don’t realize or don’t understand.
The United States has recovered a tremendous amount of goodwill and respect among the international community. Many Americans don’t understand how badly this was eroded under the Bush administration:
In Europe and much of the world Obama is lionized for bringing the United States closer to mainstream global thinking on issues like climate change and multilateralism. A 25-nation poll of 27,000 people released in July by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found double-digit boosts to the percentage of people viewing the U.S. favorably in countries around the world. That indicator had plunged across the world under .
As I mentioned in one of the Facebook comments, I think it is naive to think US foreign relationships do not have a possibly profound impact on world stability and the ability to foster peaceful relations among all nations. I think most Americans either don’t understand that, or they don’t care about foreign relations, which is in itself a myopic attitude.
Second, let’s consider what the NPP was originally meant for, and what it has actually been used for, since it was first given out.
In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the peace prize should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.”
According to Wikipedia,
Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which recognize completed scientific or literary accomplishment, the Nobel Peace Prize may be awarded to persons or organizations that are in the process of resolving a conflict or creating peace.
This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, with the NPP generally being the most political and controversial of all the prizes. It is also the only one awarded by a committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament rather than specific institutes in Sweden, which makes it subject somewhat to the prevailing political winds of Norwegian politics, which has a leftward slant. I digress, however. My real question here is this: have past NPP winners really advanced the “fraternity between the nations” and the “reduction of standing armies” across the world?
Now, I’m not saying the other “anticipated” winners or past winners weren’t/aren’t great humanitarians or undeserving of their accolades, but if people are going to complain about “the purpose” of the NPP, let’s take a look at some of them for a moment.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe was thought a great candidate for this year’s prize, for example, but has fighting the good fight for representative government in Zimbabwe really advanced the cause of peace and disarmament on a global scale? Is winning election over a corrupt, delusional autocrat do more to advance international understanding than a strong United States position in global politics? I’m just saying. This goes for great people like Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa: great humanitarians — yes; champions for the poor and oppressed — sure; harbingers of world peace? downsizers of standing armies? Not so much.
This leads into my final thought on the subject, the idea that the committee has chosen to proactively award the NPP to someone based significantly on the hope he carries with him.
“Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics,” the citation read, in part. “Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.”
“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,” Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said. “It is now that we have the opportunity to respond — all of us.”
I was debating this with someone today and he basically complained that being awarded this early is just a “popularity contest” without meaning, echoing Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele, who said, “The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’”
My counter to this is simple. Which use of the NPP actually does more to promote world peace: granting the award to someone who demonstrated great humanitarianism for several years, or granting the award to someone whose stated policy is to improve global stability and world peace, looking to follow through on that promise? In the former case, the Nobel Peace Prize is no more than an accolade, a trophy to place on the mantel. In the latter, it is an endorsement of a man’s vision for improving the world, encouraging him, and as he said himself, a “call to action.”
That tree may not bear fruit, but personally, I think endorsement at the start of the race has a bigger impact on the outcome than a blue ribbon after the race is already over.