In all the attention that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama is getting, it’s easy to lose perspective. Right now a lot of the noise is coming from pundits who are still outraged that he won, even including some on the left such as Howard Zinn who think that by carrying on with Bush’s wars, it’s a cruel irony to award him a Peace Prize. The right, of course, is still wrapped up in their resentment that people they think should have won it — George W. Bush in particular — were snubbed. But the Nobel Committee has passed over some people you might think worthy — Mahatma Gandhi, for instance — and given it to people who’s dedication to peace was problematic — Yasir Arafat comes to mind.
So it might be a good idea to step back and consider the Nobel Peace Prize not for what it means in terms of accomplishments or even in political terms. As the president said, it is often awarded to those who aspire to achieve peace and effect change in the world through peaceful means, but who, at the time, haven’t gotten there yet. Many people and organizations have won the prize while they were still far from achieving their goals: the Northern Ireland peace movement, Amnesty International, and the IAEA, to name just a few. Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who battled against apartheid, got the prize ten years before the end of segregation in South Africa. Lech Walesa won it long before the fall of the Communist government in Poland. Aung San Suu Kyi won it in 1991 for her fight for democracy in Burma and she’s still under house arrest. As Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail points out, it has gone to politicians who have barely gotten their careers off the ground.
A young politician, not yet fully tested, makes important and history-altering moves on the international stage – moves whose long-term outcomes remain uncertain – and is surprised to find himself with a Nobel Peace Prize.
That describes Lester B. Pearson in 1957. It describes Barack Obama in 2009.
Mr. Pearson’s role in creating a United Nations peacekeeping force to resolve the first Middle East conflict won him the award six years before he was prime minister. It didn’t change attitudes among Arabs or Israelis, but the Norwegian judges felt it was a symbolically important action that had a good chance of creating lasting peace in the Middle East.
Mr. Obama’s leadership in uniting all the world’s powers around total nuclear disarmament, his ending the impasse between Russia and the West and his goal-driven engagement with Iran and the wider Muslim world have not yet borne fruit, but the Norwegian judges believe the nature of the world has been significantly altered for the better.
The Nobel Peace Prize is not a lifetime-achievement award. It tends to honour actions that change the way the world functions, the way countries engage or publics think about a conflict. They should be important, historic actions, but the prize does not wait for results.
Another point that became clear in the discussion of the Nobel Prize was how amazingly self-centered the American reaction was. It was as if the Nobel committee was based here and should have only considered those candidates who were natural-born citizens of the United States (there’s another morsel for the birthers to throw into their cauldron). But it’s not; it’s a prize held and awarded by Europeans, and their perspective on the world is, not surprisingly, different than from those of us here in the West.
The Nobel Peace Prize is a European prize. The world outside North America sees Afghanistan, Israel and the embers of the Iraq conflict amid a far wider array of threats and worries. There are larger issues at stake. Some of them involve the fate of the world.
Mr. Obama’s decision to cancel the U.S. missile-defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and thus to end a simmering conflict with Russia and make nuclear disarmament possible, was an enormous development to Europeans.
His leadership of a UN Security Council summit that called for total nuclear disarmament – unanimously, for the first time – and launched a strengthened nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, just before sitting down with Iran, was probably the headline of the year outside North America.
His Cairo speech opening dialogue with the Middle East and putting international relations back on political and economic terms – ending the “clash of civilizations” and “axis of evil” confrontation of previous years – was received as a historic epiphany in much of the world.
His talks with Iran, with Russia’s and Europe’s help, and his recognition that Iran is a long-term problem rather than an immediate threat, have signalled a new recognition that change can be made to happen, as it was in 1989, by playing a long game built on shared values. That, for the rest of the world, was a big deal.
It could be dismissed as mere talk. But it is precisely the sort of initiative that has defined the Nobel Peace Prize, and that has led it to honour, with a few embarrassing exceptions, the great developments of our age.
It is also worthwhile to consider Mr. Obama’s award from the perspective of someone who has themselves won it. We’ve heard from Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, but perhaps hearing what Elie Wiesel, who won it in 1986, might have to say as well. He was interviewed by Steve Inskeep on NPR:
Mr. WIESEL: After all, he’s the president of the United States. But at the same time, seriously, he made history by allowing the American people to correct its own old racial injustices. After all, he’s the first black person to have been elected to that high office, and in doing so he did bring hope and dignity to the fact, to the very position. And therefore I think he gave something to the Nobel Prize.
INSKEEP: He added to the Nobel Prize rather than the other way around.
Mr. WIESEL: It goes both ways. But in this case, really, for the president of the United States, a sitting president, who is nine months in office, it’s true that he tries and tries – I’m sure he tries in many areas to do the right thing, and he will succeed, but in this case the prize will add or increase his moral authority.
INSKEEP: Moral authority. Well, let’s talk about that. Because this is a president who has begun many efforts around the world and the Nobel committee cited them, from reducing the threat of nuclear weapons to reducing nuclear arms stockpiles, efforts to bring peace in different parts of the world. But it’s been widely noted this morning that although many efforts have begun, none have really been concluded. Do you think it will make a big difference in those efforts that the peace prize goes to the president?
Mr. WIESEL: First of all, I think he is being recognized for his efforts and his beginnings, as you say. But I am a person who loves beginnings, I love beginnings. The mystery of beginnings is part of Jewish mysticism. And in this case, in politics, of course, because it’s also – it’s also politics – it is a good thing, it’s a promise. The Nobel committee says that he represents a promise and I’m sure that he will try to fulfill it.
Several conservative commentators grumbled that Ronald Reagan, who they say ended the Cold War, was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But Mikhail Gorbachev, who was Mr. Reagan’s counterpart, did get it in 1990. It would seem that Mr. Gorbachev, at least in the eyes of the committee, not only did as much to end the Cold War as Mr. Reagan did, he had a lot more at stake. He was there to engineer the controlled demolition of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and he faced the threat of a military coup in 1991 for his troubles. Ronald Reagan made a lot of speeches and rattled a lot of sabres, but in the end it was Mr. Gorbachev who did the heavy lifting. In other words, the right wing wanted Mr. Reagan to win for the same reasons they say Mr. Obama did.
It seems to be a uniquely American mindset that when someone wins an award, be it a Nobel or an Oscar or a Pulitzer, that it is the destination and now they can relax. In fact, just the opposite is true. As anyone who has achieved a recognition like that will tell you, the hardest part — and the truest test of character — is going on and proving that you were worthy of it in the first place. And therein might be the lesson — and the warning — for President Obama. He may have won the prize because of his potential, but he still has to achieve the goal. Instead of asking, as the critics of the president have been doing, “What has he done to deserve it?”, the question really should be, “What will he do now?”