Barack Obama's Nobel prize: Why now?

The Nobel Peace Prize is an odd thing. It has gone to institutions—Amnesty, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Médecins Sans Frontières and the UN’s peacekeeping forces; to those involved in attempting to make peace despite having blood on their hands, such as Yasser Arafat, and to figures such as Henry Kissinger who was more associated in the public imagination with the war in Vietnam.

It has gone to symbols of peace—such as the Dalai Lama—and some more questionable figures, such as Mother Teresa. Most notably it has gone to relentless campaigners for human rights, equality and the ending of violence: Jimmy Carter, Aung San Su Kyii, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
What unites the best winners is not simply an inspirational discourse but the sense they stand for something. Actions achieved or a long commitment to an ideal, often through hardship.

Indeed, the reasoning behind the awarding of the prize to previous American presidents has been easier to discern. Teddy Roosevelt opened the court of arbitration in The Hague and helped mediate a peace treaty between Russia and Japan; Woodrow Wilson was the founder of the League of Nations. Jimmy Carter won his prize for his “untiring efforts to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts”.

Which is what makes the awarding of this year’s prize to a president who has been in office for a mere nine months an odd departure. It is as if the prize committee had been persuaded to give the award on the future delivery of promises.

The citation describes his “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” in his outreach to the Muslim world and efforts to end nuclear proliferation.

Which is all very well, except that Obama is fighting wars in two Islamic states—Iraq and Afghanistan—and his efforts at international diplomacy, notwithstanding his powerful desire to achieve quick results, has thus far shown almost no progress in pushing forward peace talks in the Middle East and only very partial progress on Iran.

It is true that he has made real advances in “resetting” US-Russian relations, not least over his decision to cancel an anti-missile shield that was to be based in Eastern Europe, but the consequences of that engagement are too early to judge.

The reality is that the prize appears to have been awarded to Barack Obama for what he is not. For not being George Bush. Or rather being less like the last president. The question now is whether having being anointed perhaps too early by the committee, a Nobel prize earned so cheaply and at so little cost will help him in his efforts on the international stage or rather be an albatross around his neck. Something against which all his future efforts will be judged—and perhaps found wanting. -

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