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Barack Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize: A call to greatness

AP Photo

AP Photo

Like many I was quite surprised to learn that President Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009. As has been widely reported, two previous sitting presidents of the United States have received the Prize. First, Theodore Roosevelt won in 1906 for his work in negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth that settled the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. (Roosevelt’s Nobel Lecture can be found here.) Just over a decade later, Woodrow Wilson won the 1919 Prize (which was actually awarded in 1920) for his role in the founding of the League of Nations. Another American president, Jimmy Carter, won the Prize in 2002, over twenty-years after he left office, “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” (Carter’s Nobel Lecture can be found here.) In all three cases, the award was given after a significant accomplishment, or in Carter’s case, a series of accomplishments.

So why Obama less than a year into his presidency?

The announcement issued by the Norwegian Nobel Committee reads as follows:

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama 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.

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 values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.

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.”

We will never fully know what was in the mind of the Nobel Committee, but it seems to me that a main motive for their decision to award the Prize to Obama is the hope for the world that his election inspired: “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.” To much of the world, Obama’s election signaled a fundamental new approach to American diplomacy– one that would be less unilateral and more inclusive, one in which human rights would play a more prominent role than it seemed to during much of the previous Administration. Indeed, the Committee’s points to indications that even in the early days of his Administration, Obama is moving in this direction- citing his “vision” on nonproliferation and quoting from his recent United Nations address- “Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.”

At the end of the day, what the Committee seems to be saying is that even though Obama has not yet had enough time to achieve his goals, his vision (a word used twice in the announcement) is what the world needs. It is a vision that, if implemented, will enhance world peace.

Of course now the challenge is squarely placed at Obama’s door. I am reminded of the last scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Captain John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and his team have just “saved” Private James Francis Ryan. As Miller is dying, he says to Ryan, “James… earn this. Earn it.” No doubt, Obama will hear a similar call as he travels to Oslo to accept the Prize.

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One Comment

  • Mr Akash says:

    Few would argue that President Obama did enough in his first weeks in office to warrant a Nobel (though, the manner in which he aroused the consciousness of my generation certainly deserves some sort of accolade), but I hope (and believe) that by the end of his term(s) in office, we’ll all agree that he’s Nobel-worthy. First up: Disarmament.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.