"By awarding [President Obama] its most prestigious prize, the Committee … does justice to your vision of tolerance and dialogue between States, cultures and civilizations. Finally, it sets the seal on America's return to the heart of all the world's peoples."
America’s return to the heart of all the world’s peoples.
It's hard to see how that is a bad thing.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also praised the decision, saying, "In a short time [President Obama] has been able to set a new tone throughout the world ..."
A new tone. Hard to argue with that.
Despite the view on the American right that Europe is some kind of anti-American socialist monolith, Sarkozy and Merkel are both conservative, pro-American leaders. They even supported Bush. (For that matter, two of the five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee are members of the conservative party in that country. But, then, as a German friend of mine used to say, "The US has a conservative party ... and a far right party.")
[It's also worth noting that Germany and France have the largest contingents of NATO troops in Afghanistan after the US and the UK. Of course, they were mocked by many in this country for not joining Bush's folly in Iraq. "Freedom fries," and all that. As it turned out, it's too bad we didn't heed their advice and focus on stabilizing Afghanistan instead. Sometimes it’s a good idea to listen to your friends. But that is another subject.]
More than anything, the award the of the Nobel Peace Prize to a sitting US president is an affirmation that US leadership matters profoundly to the rest of the world. It is a fundamentally "pro-American" gesture. Which is why it was condemned by those who hate America like the Taliban, Hugo Chavez, and Hamas -- and the anti-Obama crowd in this country, like hate radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh who acknowledged his alliance of convenience with the enemies of freedom: "Now that's hilarious, that I'm on the same side of something that the Taliban, and that we all are on the same side as the Taliban." We are all on the same side as the Taliban? What do you mean "we," paleface? (Hey, Rush -- the Taliban share your views on a lot of things, like feminists and gays, to cite just two examples.)
By contrast, those who praised the decision included the likes of previous Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Shimon Peres and Mikhail Gorbachev. Which crowd would you rather associate yourself with?
But, then, President Obama was attacked by his domestic critics for telling school kids to work hard and stay in school. As Eugene Robinson wrote, "If Obama were to cure cancer, the blowhards would complain that he’s put thousands of hard-working, red-blooded American oncologists out of work."
As E.J. Dionne noted on NPR:
There is something kind of rancid about our current politics that you saw here, again, as you saw when there was a certain celebration on the right when Chicago didn't win the Olympics. ... [T]here was just such anger that our president won the Nobel Peace Prize, that's kind of disturbing about the state of politics.
(As Dionne also noted, "Obama’s critics can’t have it both ways. If it was bad for presidential prestige to lose the Olympics, isn’t it good for presidential prestige to win the Nobel Peace Prize? ... Why isn't that worth celebrating? ... Yet, if Oslo should deflate a lot of the bloviating about Copenhagen, I doubt that Obama’s critics will notice any contradiction. They will just move on smartly to the next attack.")
The Republican party didn't waste a moment to turn this honor for our country into a partisan attack. Within minutes of the announcement from Oslo, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele came out with this:
“The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’ It is unfortunate that the President’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights. One thing is certain - President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.”
I quote Steele only because it allows me to pass along this quip from Pat Buchanan: "Michael Steele had a Kanye West moment, coming out there and saying Beyonce should have gotten the award. He shouldn't have done that." What does it say about the state of politics in this country when Buchanan is a voice of moderation on the right?
President Obama's senior advisor David Axelrod made this initial observation upon hearing the news: "I’d like to believe that winning the Nobel Peace Prize is not a political liability." Sadly, given the "rancid" state of American politics, it probably is the case that the Nobel Committee did President Obama no favor by awarding him this prize. But I think President Obama will survive this setback as he has others.
It's a perfectly reasonable view to state that the award was premature. President Obama is fairly new on the scene and presumably (cross your fingers) has a long time remaining on the political stage. We can only hope that his best work is still ahead of him. But it is also reasonable to note that the Nobel Peace Prize is not given posthumously. Which means it is often given long before the recipient's life work is done and before history has rendered a verdict on the success of those efforts.
[It's worth noting that despite all the chatter about the 205 nominations for the Peace Prize having been made back in February, when President Obama had only been in office for a couple of weeks, the decision of the Nobel Committee was not made until last Monday.]
President Obama correctly noted, "[T]hroughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes."
In some cases, it has gone to honor specific achievements, like Jimmy Carter brokering the Camp David accords between Israel and its largest Arab neighbor, Egypt, which has resulted in a peace between those two former enemies that has endured for over 30 years. But in other cases it has been used to give momentum to a cause. Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but the brutal military dictatorship she has resisted continues to rule Burma. What has she "accomplished"? Archbishop Desmond Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 -- ten years before the apartheid regime in South Africa fell. Was it "premature" then? Or in 1993 when it was awarded to Nelson Mandela for the same cause? Shirin Edabi received it in 2003 for promoting democracy and human rights in Iran -- how has that been going lately? And last time I checked the Dalai Lama hadn't succeeded in securing the freedom or cultural autonomy of the Tibetan people. But he gives inspiring speeches.
Which is the point. The path to peace lies in the hearts of people. (Our friend, Mickey Lemle, who made the excellent documentary Compassion in Exile: The Story of the 14th Dalai Lama, tells a story of His Holiness advising him not to go to an anti-war demonstration if he had anger in his heart. "Be the change you seek in the world," as Gandhi said.) Changing peoples' hearts is an accomplishment.
As far as I'm concerned, President Obama's speech in Cairo in June alone fully justifies the Nobel Peace Prize. (If you never saw it, it is still worth doing so. You can watch it here.) Given the increasingly violent "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, a US president traveling to the largest Arab city to deliver an eloquent message of peace is a remarkable event. (If only that had been done in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 -- instead talk of a "crusade" and Manichean macho swagger like "either you are with us or you are with the enemy" and "God is not neutral.")
Those who say President Obama got the Peace Prize for being "not Bush" have half a point. The magnitude of the change President Obama represents is defined by the starting point. It is fair to say this is as much a prize given to American voters for choosing a change of course as it is to President Obama for leading that change of course. It is not a good thing when the world's sole superpower becomes a force of destabilization and in some ways even lawlessness. No one would be celebrating the end of torture and secret prisons if those things never existed in the first place.
Of course, those who want us to start yet another war, with Iran, when we are overextended in two wars already aren't going to like a message of peace. (Remember this one? “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”) And the Chinese were pretty unhappy about the Dalia Lama getting the Nobel Peace Prize.
As Steve Benen wrote in the Washington Monthly:
For all the recognition of George W. Bush's unpopularity, it's easy to overlook the ways in which the international community was truly mortified by the U.S. leadership during the Bush era. The irreplaceable leading nation could no longer be trusted to do the right thing -- on use of force, torture, rule of law, international cooperation, democratic norms, even climate change. We'd reached a point at which much of the world was poised to simply give up on America's role as a global leader.And, love him or hate him, President Obama changed this. I doubt anyone on the Nobel committee would admit it, but the Peace Prize is, to a certain extent, an implicit "thank you" to the United States for reclaiming its rightful place on the global stage. It's indicative of a degree of relief. Much of the world has wanted America to takeFor many of President Obama's critics, it isn't so much that he hasn't done anything as it is that they don't like the things he is doing.
the lead again, and they're rightly encouraged to see the U.S. president stepping up in the ways they hoped he would. It's hard to overstate the significance, for example, of seeing a U.S. president chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council and making strides on a nuclear deal.This is not to say Obama was honored simply because he's not Bush. The president really has committed himself to promoting counter-proliferation, reversing policies on torture, embracing a new approach to international engagement, and recommitting the U.S. to the Middle East peace process. But charting a new course for American leadership, breaking with the recent past, no doubt played a
The Nobel Committee's statement read, in part:
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.Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of valuesI don't think it is unfair to say that many of President Obama's critics don't like exactly those things the Nobel Committee cited in giving him the prize. For them, world opinion is something to distain not cultivate.
and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.
(To take just one example, when the US Supreme Court banned executions of mentally retarded convicts Justice Stevens cited foreign law in a footnote noting that "within the world community, the ... death penalty for crimes committed by mentally retarded offenders is overwhelmingly disapproved." Right-wingers went nuts. Over a footnote. In a scathing dissent, Justice Scalia called it "dangerous dicta" since "this court should not impose foreign moods, fads, or fashions on Americans". In her confirmation hearings, Justice Sotomayor was attacked for saying that while "[f]oreign law cannot be used as a holding or a precedent or to bind an outcome of a legal decision interpreting the constitution," American judges should not "close their minds to some good ideas".)
It might be worth recalling in this context the preface of the Declaration of Independence which asserts that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires" that its signatories explain themselves. Talk about "dangerous dicta." Why should we care what the rest of the world thinks?
I agree with the State Department official who quipped: "Certainly from our standpoint, this gives us a sense of momentum -- when the United States has accolades tossed its way, rather than shoes."
When the pro-American conservative Sarkozy was elected president of France in 2007, Condoleeza Rice asked him what she could do to help him. "Improve your image in the world," he told her.
Coincidentally, last week, prior to the Nobel announcement, the results of the annual Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index were announced. That index measures the global image of 50 countries. NBI founder, Simon Anholt said:
"What’s really remarkable is that in all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States in 2009. Despite recent economic turmoil, the U.S. actually gained significant ground. The results suggest that the new U.S. administration has been well received abroad and the American electorate’s decision to vote in President Obama has given the United States the status of the world’s most admired country.”
Between 2008 and 2009, the US went from seventh to first. As another NBI official noted: "While most nations’ reputation does not undergo major change from year to year, the U.S. has clearly bucked the trend."
Most of the things we seek to accomplish in the world are not achieved through force or the threat of force. Mililtary might can command respect or acquiescence. But it can also engender hatred and resistance. In most of our dealings with the world it is more or less irrelevant. It is our moral leadership that is the source of our greatest power.
Most Americans, I hope, believe it is a good thing that our president received one of the world's highest honors. If the world is expressing optimism over our leadership, maybe we should, too.