Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama and the Nobel

OK, so how should I say this: Really?

Here's my sense of things. President Obama is an amazingly accomplished individual, incredibly intelligent, thoughtful, and, I hope, will be one of our best Presidents. I know that I for one have placed a lot of faith in him and his administration and I'm actually quite optimistic for the next years to come.

That said, I cannot understand the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to him, and I think it is more telling about our attitudes toward him than anything that he has done. In fact, Obama and his administration have been just as surprised about the award as everybody else.

The Committee cited "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." And "Mr. Obama’s effort to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal", stating that, "He has created a new international climate".

To this I say, what? Since when do Nobel awards go to creating a climate, which, as of yet, has yet to produce any meaningful or substantive results? Obama has been in office 9 months, and, in terms of world peace, the record has not been outstanding, despite good faith attempts by the Administration. Take, for instance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama has not been successful in making Israel commit to ceasing construction in the settlements, and has just barely managed to organize a meeting between Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, which produced no results aside from the meeting itself. With regards to the Iranian nuclear project, talks are to start soon, which I suppose is a good sign, but, again, we don't know what will happen and whether the talks will be successful.

I can't think of any other meaningful initiative that Obama has undertaken in the past nine months that can make sense of the Committee's decision. At any rate, when I compare his actions to those of past winners (including other American presidents) such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, The Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and others, the Committee's decision is even more striking. Many of those people dedicated their life to peace efforts, and many paid a great personal price for their convictions and sacrifices.

Perhaps, when his term is over, we can reflect and think that an award is deserved. However, now it is just too soon. Before celebrating Obama's potential, which is indeed great, let the man accomplish some of the difficult tasks ahead of him.


  1. Adam, I totally agree with your post. The NPPC has turned the prize into a means for purposes, no matter how lofty, that I think are pretty much at odds with what the prize should be recognizing: concrete achievements. Creating a new international climate with Guantanamo still open, Iraq and Afghanistan (including a possible troop build-up) still ongoing, and lots and lots of other wars going while Obama himself is preoccupied (appropriately) with domestic issues such as health care reform is a striking paradox.

    I have the feeling the NPPC saw the recent SNL skit against Obama and decided to do something about it. Though it sounds petty, from now I wouldn't put it past them. The prize has lost credibility for me.

  2. I agree. Further, this looks to some an attempt to influence US politics by tying the president's hands in foreign politics and lending him credence in health care reform. It politicizes the Nobel Peace Prize and there would have been plenty of opportunities to award President Obama once we are able to take stock of his accomplishments. This is more like cheerleading for a good cause than rewarding someone for a lifetime of work in building peace.

  3. There is a paper by a great political philosopher from Arizona, David Schdmitz, on the idea of deserving ("How to Deserve" Political Theory, 2002) that, perhaps, was in the mind of the Selection Committee. Schdmitz argues that our default account of deserving is one that, in order to determine whether I deserve a certain X, we need to pay attention to what one has done in the past. Schdmitz explains that sometime sit may well be that we get something beforehand, that is, that we may be awarded something so that, in the future, we make merits to justify the award. Perhaps the Committee agrees with Schdmitz on this account of "desert"? Unless they have an idea of this sort in mind, it is hard to understand the criterion used.

  4. Okay, so he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. We can argue about whether he deserved it or not -- but what to do now?

    Maybe Obama should seriously consider refusing? Or, I guess now, giving it back. I mean, it's a win win, at least politically, both international and domestically.

    First, by politely declining, he still gets the prestige of being awarded the thing, but garners the points for being modest-- he ends up indirectly acknowledging what many people in most countries are thinking -- that he hasn't done enough yet to deserve it. Most would agree that Obama has done a lot to change the direction of American foreign policy, but not enough -- yet -- to be worthy of this high honour. If his speech strikes the right tone, he can appear magnanimous, dignified, and respectful in declining.

    Second, it will play well at home. Obama can politely decline and, again, with a properly written speech, look gracious for the recognition but also clearly say that while his peace efforts on many international fronts are priorities, the security and prosperity of the U.S. is his absolute #1 priority. This will send a gentle message to allies abroad that his hands and options in conducting U.S. foreign policy are not tied, and that he's still interested in peace, but also security. This will also undermine a key line of attack used by Republicans back home: that the President is more interested in pleasing the "citizens of the world" than advancing America's interest. However inaccurate that attack line is, Republicans have been using it. This is an opportunity to defuse it indefinitely.

    Of course, all of that sounds easy when you're doing the recommending, not the one awarded the Nobel Prize!


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