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Professor Marilyn McMorrow on Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel

My friend and colleague, Professor Marilyn McMorrow, has written extensively on the Nobel Peace Prize and in 2000 received a Nobel Institute Fellowship. I asked her if she’d be willing to write a post on the selection of Barack Obama for the Prize. To my great pleasure, she agreed. Her post follows.

• • • •

When the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 would go to President Barack Obama, many asked with surprise:  “But what has Obama actually accomplished?”

While legitimate, this question nevertheless points to a mistaken understanding of what Alfred Nobel had in mind when he decided to bequeath his vast fortune to fund annual prizes for practitioners in the fields of Medicine, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, and Peace-making.  (Much later, in 1968, The Bank of Sweden would establish a prize for Economics in Memory of Alfred Nobel.)  Nobel specified these awards should go “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

Nobel, a brilliant and innovative scientist, was independently wealthy, thus able to finance and build his own laboratories and hire his own staff.  Perhaps this privileged position made him especially cognizant of how much the world loses when any potential scientific genius lacks the resources necessary to subject inspiration to the crucible of experiment.  Nobel understood that timely injection of recognition and resources might be just the catalyst necessary, for that unknown scientist to achieve a breakthrough that might benefit humankind.

To be sure, sometimes particular Nobel Peace Prize decisions come across more as a tribute or as a “Lifetime Achievement Award.”  But whenever the Norwegian Nobel Committee risks using the prize decision to the person, currently—“in the preceding year”—and right now) doing “the most or best work for fraternity among nations,” the Committee is carrying out Nobel’s specific injunction.

It might be fruitful to imagine oneself in the Committee’s position.   Review the entire panoply of international relations over the past twelve months, while asking a particular question:  Is there one person (or, as the Nobel Foundation’s regulations permit, up to three persons) whose contribution to all that peace-making entails stands out in a remarkable way?  If so, would the moral authority the Nobel Peace Prize confers enable that person to galvanize and secure initiatives for peace?

Of course it is a risk to the future prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize when the Committee takes the chance of commending, thereby hoping to reinforce, a peacemaker’s orientation and aspiration.  But some risks are worth taking.

Because the Nobel Peace Prize does more than lend moral authority.  Prize decisions also work to specify international norms and build consensus about what constitutes the range and limits of permissible—or obligatory—policy choices in international relations:  multilateral diplomacy as central; regard for the roles of the United Nations and other international institutions; dialogue and negotiation as preferred instruments for resolving international conflict, even the most difficult; consistent progress toward a world free from nuclear arms; constructive cooperation in response to climatic challenges; and a bedrock commitment to respect for democracy and human rights.  (See the Nobel Peace Prize Press Release October 9, 2009.)

Sometimes, a prize decision highlights one of these norms in particular.  But this year the Committee chose to salute Obama for his determination to set the course of United States foreign policy in accord with that entire construct of international norms, even, or especially, when so doing demands explicit redirection.  It is fair to conclude the Nobel Committee not only wants to endorse Obama’s orientation, but to make firm his course, out of the conviction that all of us around the planet need and want the United States to so act and lead.

This “speaking for all of us” is one more essential component of the Nobel Peace Prize process.  Experts decide Nobel’s other prizes.  But “five anonymous guys” with nothing to gain or lose (among whom, this year, are four women) who were themselves elected by the Norwegian Storting, one of the oldest parliaments in the world, decide who merits the Peace Prize.  Nobel set it up this way.  Historians cannot know for certain why Nobel specified this particular arrangement for selecting the Peace Laureate.  But perhaps he meant to suggest that every human being has the capacity to be an expert in what makes for peace.  In any case, the Peace Prize has definitely become the peoples’ prize.  As the immediate world-wide reaction (for and against) the Obama award clearly indicates, people everywhere feel fully qualified to judge whether or not any particular peace prize is warranted.

Robert Frost taught us to see those two roads diverging in a yellow wood and to recognize how life requires us to choose one over the other.  Poignantly, the poem laments a choice made with the best of intentions that might turn out “ages and ages hence” (or even tomorrow?) to have, regrettably, made all the difference.  The Norwegian Nobel Committee took a big risk this year, by deciding to name Obama a Peace Laureate—a designation he will retain for the rest of his life, regardless of what he does or does not accomplish.

I presume the Committee members were savvy enough ahead of time to “look down” the path of giving him the prize or the divergent path of selecting another honoree.  In the future, if Obama’s leadership amounts to little but fizz, the Committee members may come to recall their decision, as Frost says, “with a sigh.”  But perhaps the Committee focused its priority not on the long-term credibility and prestige of the Peace Prize, but rather on two roads that crucially diverge in the conduct of United States Foreign Policy, in ways that may “make all the difference” for the whole world, for “ages and ages hence.”  Perhaps they found it their duty to urge the leader of the world’s most powerful country onto the right path.

Professor Marilyn McMorrow, RSCJ, is the Director of the Linz Ethics Project in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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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.