• Obama
  • December 23, 2009
  • 7 minutes read

The Peace Laureate

The Peace Laureate

President Obama delivered an exceptionally well-reasonsed and appropriately humble address accepting a Nobel Prize for Peace, writes John Nichols.


President Obama delivered an exceptionally well-reasonsed and appropriately humble address accepting a Nobel Prize for Peace that, in the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was awarded “a little early.”

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader summed this whole Nobel moment up quite ably when he said, “I think if you are realistic, it may have been a little early but it doesn’t matter, I know Obama is a very able person… I think the Nobel Peace Prize gives him more encouragement and also gives him more moral personal responsibility.”

Obama acknowledged both the absurdity of his circumstance with a grace that was as appealing as it was commendable. The president’s frankness about the controversies and concerns regarding the award of the Peace Prize to a man who just last week ordered 30,000 U.S. new troops into the Afghanistan quagmire, and the humility he displayed throughout his address Thursday in Oslo offered a glimpse of Obama at his best.

As such, the speech was important and, dare we say, hopeful. Said Obama:

I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that speaks to our highest aspirations – that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.

And yet I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women — some known, some obscure to all but those they help — to be far more deserving of this honor than I.

But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by forty three other countries — including Norway — in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.

Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict — filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.

The latter sentiment, which framed the remainder of Obama’s remarks, is meaningful only if Obama acts to “replace one with the other.”

For that reason, the best responses to the award of this Nobel Prize come from activists such as Paul Kawika Martin, the policy and political director of the group Peace Action, who said Thursday: “President Obama has a tremendous opportunity to advance world peace, but he has yet to live up to the Nobel Peace Prize. Although Peace Action applauds him for stating a vision of a world without nuclear weapons and increasing diplomacy with Iran, we believe he has missed opportunities to advance non-military solutions to conflict by dramatically increasing troop levels in Afghanistan and continuing the growth of the military budget. We challenge him to live up to the honor of being a Nobel laureate.”