Does Obama Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

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Barack Obama just won the Nobel Peace Prize and the news has taken everyone by surprise. Even the President was unaware that he was nominated, according to his advisors.

So far I see several kinds of reactions to the news.

1. There are those who are unequivocally happy for him and feel he is deserving.
2. There are those who support him but are puzzled by the timing.
3. Then there are those who support him but feel dismayed that he won.
4. And finally, there are those who don’t support him and I actually don’t care what they think. If he’s a Nazi commie for trying to give every American affordable health care, then I’m sure he’ll be viewed as the Anti-Christ for winning the Nobel Peace Price.

I decided to look at the reasons why people are puzzled or dismayed by his selection and to see if they are legitimate critiques. I also looked at the list of previous laureates to see if there are precedents that justify his selection.

Here is a list of what seems to be the most common critiques.

• The Peace Prize should not be awarded to a leader presiding over two wars.
• Obama hasn’t done anything yet. He needs to accomplish something first.
• He’s just a symbol.
• The award was given for promises as yet unfulfilled.
• He’s just a celebrity and got it on name recognition alone.

Who chooses the winner?

Just to put things into perspective, the Nobel Prizes are not awarded by some public international body. The cash prizes (over a million dollars) are privately funded by the estate of Alfred Nobel, according to his will. The winners are chosen by a small committee appointed by the Norwegian legislature. True, the awards have become global icons of accomplishment and the world might feel it should have a say in who is chosen. But the fact is, it’s not. It’s a private award managed by a small country.

What’s the criteria for being chosen?

Alfred Nobel’s original intention for the Peace Prize is for “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”

By these criteria, very few past Peace Prize winners have been deserving. Al Gore, the 2007 winner was awarded for his work to reduce greenhouse gases. The 2006 winner, Muhammed Yunus won for his work in micro-lending. Ecology and banking?

Organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (1999 winners) and International Campaign to Ban Landmines (1997) are better known for cleaning up the mess of war, not so much the prevention or stopping of it.

None of these winners were directly involved in using diplomacy to resolve conflicts, reducing militaries or organizing peace congresses.

Has Obama met these criteria?

Diplomacy
I interpret “for the fraternity of nations” to mean spreading the use of diplomacy to resolve conflicts and for nurturing a culture of dialogue. This criterion is the main specified reason the committee had chosen Obama, “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.

I think in the last year, Barack did as much as any person to cultivate an atmosphere of dialogue and reconciliation in global politics. Not for every situation, not with every nation, but on the whole, yes. He has painstakingly re-steered American diplomacy towards multilateralism.

Sure, so far there hasn’t been much to show for it on the surface. But the person who started the relay race is just as important as the person who crosses the finish line.

The hard work is reversing the bad decisions and arrogant strategies of the Bush Era.

Anti-Militarism
The second criterion is for the “abolition or reduction of standing armies”. It seems reasonable that a winner of a peace prize shouldn’t be the Commander-in-Chief of the largest military in the world involved in two wars, overseeing the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. I can’t argue there.

Yet, the wars were not begun under his watch. And the military he presides over was not created by him. Although he’s currently debating whether to increase troops in Afghanistan, he has, however, reduced a significant number of troops in Iraq. And he’s already stopped the precipitating increases of military spending that the previous administration had set in motion.

Peace Congresses
As for the “holding and promotion of peace congresses”, I don’t see anyone on that list of winners who’s done this since Woodrow Wilson advocated the League of Nations a hundred years ago. So we can safely say that this criterion shouldn’t be held against Obama.

So now let’s look at some of the critiques about Obama.

The Peace Prize should not be awarded to a leader presiding over two wars.

The prize has been awarded to warmongers who negotiated an end to war (Henry Kissinger), leaders with enormous militaries (Mikhail Gorbachev), and heads of state presiding over entrenched wars (Kim Dae Jung).

Again, Obama didn’t start the wars. He’s significantly reduced troops in one but he’s thinking about increasing them in another. Whatever, you may think of the wars, he’s trying to resolve them both responsibly. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes figuring out a way to get out of the Afghanistan quagmire while keeping it from becoming overrun by the Taliban. But at least he’s trying to have dialogue with the Muslim world instead of bullying them.

Obama hasn’t done anything yet. He needs to accomplish something first.

This is nonsense. First, as I argued, he’s reversing the damage done during the Bush years. Second, he’s doing the unglamorous work of laying the groundwork to make the conditions of peace possible. And third, he spent two hard years trying to subvert the white male monopoly of the Presidency and became President! He didn’t accomplish anything?

Just by being President, and by sheer force of his personality and vision, he’s singlehandedly inspired the developing world to trust in and pursue democracy, and reduced mistrust with the Muslim world.

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He’s just a symbol.

You bet he is. Other powerful symbols who won the award are Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. They didn’t “accomplish” much either since both were limited by imprisonment when they won.

The award was given for promises as yet unfulfilled.

As I’ve argued, quite a lot has been achieved. But even if there hasn’t been anything dramatically obvious, there is a long precedent for the prize being awarded to someone who may need a little push or publicity to help them reach their goals. This has been done for Korean reunification, perestroika, East Timor, Northern Ireland, and twice for the Palestine/Israel conflict.

I like this use of the prize.

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He’s just a celebrity and got it on name recognition alone.

The committee does seem to waver back and forth between big names and unknown activists. I would like it to be used to help publicize lesser known causes. But I don’t mind it being awarded to bigger names if that means attention can be focused on their causes. Obama clearly doesn’t need the publicity. And I doubt he really wants this prize and the attendant pressure.

Every year, there are thousands of worthy winners of this prize. I admit I was surprised by Obama being chosen. And my first reaction was also, “what did he do?” After some thought and research I’m happy about the choice.

I think it’s proper that this year, when the world is clearly communally aware of our interconnectedness, the award be given to someone who can and is making the most impact on a global scale.

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9 thoughts on “Does Obama Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?”

  1. As the British would say “Hear hear” I agree with you.

    I actually feel sorry for Obama… The Nobel prize sounds more like a jinx than anything else… South Africa is still in a fragile state, Burma is still a military dictatorship, Israel and Palestine are still at each others throat (Yasser Arafat was a much discussed Nobel prize winner) …

    1. no kidding.

      i have the feeling that he’d rather have the olympics. it’s weird all the negative reactions to him winning it. i understand the surprise, but the more i think about it, i think it’s a bold gutsy move by the Nobel committee.

  2. Great post!
    Very informative, sharp, articulate and nuanced.
    I wonder if there is some kind of award for that…..

    Your posts are always a nice reflection of your curiosity and uniquely observative and sharp mind.

    Keep them coming ; )

    PS I think it’s great that he won, although I did not know about it til this post. Obviously there is a long way to go, but what he attempts and symbolizes is real, inspiring and extremely relevant.

  3. thanks laurens!

    here are a few more points that i thought of.

    i keep hearing about how obama hasn’t done anything. that he’s just all empty beautiful words and no action.

    he’s actually done quite a bit in the past 9 months. each of them is not dramatic or as sexy as peace in the middle east (but then there have been a handful of laureates awarded just for this issue, yet problems are worse than ever). but the hundred or so actions he’s taken altogether have been significant. mostly reversing the mess bush left behind.

    sure there are promises unfulfilled, but he’s already set in motion actions to get those on track. and then there are the numerous promises he has fulfilled. everything from closing guantanamo, to lifting the gag rule for health organizations, to raising emission standards. i can think of a few dozen just off the top of my head.

    he’s also made significant diplomatic advances with countries such as cuba, russia, iran, north korea.

    let’s also not forget that he spent two years subverting existing power structures by convincing americans to vote a black man into office. i think that’s an amazing achievement, and profoundly transformative on a global scale, that somehow we’ve all already taken for granted.

    also, i find it curious the amount of hostility directed at obama. he had nothing to do with the selection process. better to direct your anger at the nobel selection committee.

    the more i analyze and contemplate this choice, the more i love it.

  4. This is going to be a distraction for Obama. No, he does not deserve it. I like Obama and I hope he succeeds but the fact is he as done NOTHING to deserve this. If Obama was smart, he would kindly decline this award and state that he has yet to accomplish his goals so he therefore must decline the award. He couldn’t lose if he did that.

    1. I’m gonna have to disagree with you there Tornadoes.

      Obama has been busily dismantling the policies of the previous administration – this work may not look like big fireworks from day to day but quite a bit is being done on many fronts.

      Like Wind said the Committee can give the prize to whomever it sees fit. While they are recognizing Obama for what he has already accomplished, I think they are also investing in his work by giving him the prize now.

      The Committee can decide to be reactive only or do more by being proactive. I think that’s what we are seeing here.

  5. Wind, I just finished reading ‘Peace is Every Step.’ It had some very good insights.

    Although I’m not a fan of Obama or his party, I believe that anything that’s done to promote peace in the world is laudable. It’s ALL good. Hope may not be tangible, but it can move mountains.

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