The Nobel Peace Prize: Is It Too Soon?

Out of respect for Hillary Clinton and the Clinton legacy. I never got myself to fully choose between Clinton and Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primaries, once my favorite candidate, John Edwards (yeah, I know) dropped out. But even if I never wholeheartedly took sides (although I leaned toward Obama, and endorsed him for the general election), I always felt the need to defend him against allegations from diehard Clintonites that he was all talk and no action, or that it was somehow naive to hope that his idealistic rhetoric would actually make it into political reality. It cost very little, because I actually believed in him, deeply. And ten months into his first term, that belief has not been seriously reduced. I think this is because my trust in him never resembled that uncritical caricature pushed by Clinton’s most ardent supporters. Oddly, that caricature is more easily found in the way the Nobel Committee is justifying giving its 2009 Peace Price to Obama.

Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the committee, has said that the decision to give Obama the award represents a return to the initial of Alfred Nobel, that the award not necessarily be given as a kind of lifetime achievement award. Rather, it is to be given to the one person who has given the largest contribution to keep the world safe and peaceful over the last year. I see little wrong in such a criterion, and I’m happy that the committee decided to be open about on which grounds Obama receives the award. Still, this criterion means the the recipient’s contributions needs to be very clear, or at least, it needs to be very clear how his current work may lay the groundwork for important progress on matters of peace and security in the future. On that note, I think the commitee’s reasoning is perhaps overly optimistic.

Obama no doubt deserves credit for having spelled out ambition of nuclear disarmament, a stronger focus on critical dialogue with potentially threatening states like Iran and North Korea, and his efforts to reach out to the Muslim world, for putting pressure on Israel and Palestine to recomitt to a Middle Eastern peace process. But does the sum of all this really, like Jagland suggested at a press conference, mean that no politician has done more than Barack Obama to promote peace over the last year?

Because it’s still so early in his first term, to answer yes to that question, you have to assume that one man, and one country, holds the key to peace all around the world. I don’t think Obama thinks that. He has certainly made an effort, and stretched his broad international popularity and gravitas thinly across a very ambitious foreign policy agenda. But if we were to accept the premise that the peace prize should enhance Obama’s authority and ability to carry out his agenda, it’s somewhat troubling that most of his effort have so fallen short. Israel has refused to halt the construction of new settlements, and it seems increasingly unlikely that Congress will grant Obama significant leverage in the negotiations meant to result in a new international accord on climate change, during the conference in Copenhagen in December. (That said, Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and John Kerry just this week started work a Senate climate change bill to accompany the Waxman-Markey bill that very narrowly passed the House in June). Also, it’s not diplomatic outreach, so much more troops, that have characterized the Obama Administration’s line on both Iraq and Aghanistan. To reward Obama for having ‘changed the tone’ of international politics is a somewhat weak justification to begin with. The actual results he has gained thus far only makes it seem even weaker.

Whatever one might think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, here too the timing seems a little odd. The announcement was made just as Obama is pondering whether to commit several thounsand more combat troops in Afghanistan, and as commander-in-chief, he presides over no less than two wars. I supported and continue to support the engagement in Aghanistan, even as the situation looks increasingly dour, and the next couple of years may be just as much about holding on to the positive results achieved in the first few years of the war, more than the broad-based democratization/counterterrorism agenda that originally intended. That said, I do wonder how awarding Obama with the peace prize will play in that region. ‘War for peace’ has always been a controversial argument. Particularly as an argument for awarding someone a peace prize.

For these and others, the award could easily be read as something of a political move. If by political we’d meant that the Nobel Committee also wanted to encourage and recognize the importance of certain political goals (like, say, diplomacy or nuclear proliferation) this could have been defended by pointing to previous winners, although the connection is somewhat unconvincing. The problem is that because the award is given for such almost idealistic reasons, it may be perceived more as a rebuke of the go-it-alone, international-law-mocking presidency of George W. Bush than as a deeply felt acknowledgment of Barack Obama’s accomplishments or stated goals. It definitely is welcome that the United States under Obama have opened up more to the world, and stepped away from the mix of unilateralism, intimidation and lack of respect for allies that characterized much of the Bush era. But to make this – developments that in all fairness were partly enacted during the second Bush term – a possible interpretation of why Obama is awarded with the peace prize, is problematic for the Nobel Committee, which needs to be perceived as above-the-fray in day-to-day politics.

Also, I can’t help but be afraid of what this might mean for Obama’s domestic agenda. The Republican Party have, with some success, tried to paint Obama both as a ‘celebrity politician’ who is better at making speeches than making change, and as one who travels abroad to apologize for past mistakes instead of standing up for American values. Both these arguments are of course utterly silly, but I’m not sure whether a peace prize not yet backed up with concrete political results, will help his standing with on-the-fence voters. And considering how many prominent conservatives cheered Chicago’s loss in the contest for the 2016 Olympics last week, my guess is that this international recognition of the US having turned the page on George W. Bush, will be met with nothing but contempt in those circles.

All this is not to say that I don’t congratulate President Obama on winning. I just hope that the next couple will bring results that backs up the award. In any case, I think he could have gotten it a couple of years from now anyway.

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