• Obama
  • October 11, 2009
  • 4 minutes read

Obama’s Nobel

Obama’s Nobel

The announcement says the award is being given,

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.

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. 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. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened…

For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman. The Committee endorses Obama’s appeal that “Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.”

My first thought on hearing the news was that the award seems a little premature. After all, he hasn’t yet actually made peace anywhere, and his efforts on the Palestinian Question– which he himself launched with such fanfare on his first day in office– have been decidedly disappointing.

On the other hand, his declaration of support for a world free of nuclear weapons was, as the committee noted, a very important step.

When I was working on my 2000 book, The Moral Architecture of World Peace: Nobel Laureates Discuss our Global Future I surveyed the history of the peace prize and discussed with the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee its philosophy in awarding the prizes. Sometimes, he said, they are awarded for past achievements and sometimes to someone who had started out along a good, though perhaps challenging, peace track. In the latter case, the intent of the award was to encourage this person to continue along the peace track.

The committee has also evidently made a real effort to make the award to people of a variety of different backgrounds and both genders. (Unlike all those numerous hard-science Nobel prizes, awarded by Swedes rather than Norwegians, nearly all of which go to well-funded white male professors at very well-funded big American universities.) It has also sought to establish the linkages between peacemaking/peacebuilding and other concerns such as environmental concerns or the rights of indigenous peoples.

Some of the committee’s decisions– particularly its awards to Henry Kissinger, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasser Arafat– have been extremely controversial. (To say the least.)

There is also, of course, still a tiny remaining trace of the “rebranding” effort that Alfred Nobel was engaged in when he endowed the prizes. He had made his money largely through production of dynamite; so of course it was a “good” branding move to have his name become much more strongly associated with the concept of peacemaking than that of destruction.

But all these bodies that award big, well-endowed prizes (of which there are these days more than a few) are all also concerned about maintaining the “brand” of their prize. So hitching your prize to the wagon of a figure like Pres. Obama, who is extremely popular everywhere in the world today–except in Israel and among a sector of US society– is also not a dumb move.

Well, I don’t want to seem too grudging toward Obama. Many of the foreign-policy things he’s done in office so far have been admirable, even if his Palestine policy and his Afghan policy have thus far not been. I do hope this award encourages him to be even bolder in his peacemaking and more visionary in his outreach to that 95% of humanity who are not US citizens.

So, congratulations Pres. Obama!