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Obama's Symbolic Nobel

October 9, 2009, 8:44 PM

President Obama is now the just third sitting president to win the Nobel Peace Prize—the first since Woodrow Wilson won in 1919 for his role in setting up the League of Nations. The Nobel Prize Committee awarded the prize to Obama for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

It’s true that by emphasizing the importance of multilateral dialogue President Obama has been able—by virtue of his position as leader of the most powerful country in the world—to substantially change the tone of international politics. But it is hard to see what he has actually accomplished in his first year in office to deserve the Nobel Prize more than people like Morgan Tsvangirai, who has risked his life to oppose Mobotu Sese Seko’s autocratic rule in Zimbabwe, or Hu Jia, a Chinese democracy activist currently in jail for “subverting state authority.” It is especially surprising when you consider that he was nominated for the award two weeks after his came into office, apparently on the strength of what he did during his presidential campaign. As George Packer puts it, “Not even a Rookie of the Year is ready to be elected to the Hall of Fame.”

The Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to give President Obama the award was met with widespread ridicule. Jake Tapper joked on Twitter that the standards for an honorary degree at Arizona State are more exacting than for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mark Halperin said that the award wasn’t quite as inexplicable as Marisa Tomei’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but that it was pretty close. Adam Isacson wrote that as fond as he is of Obama, he thinks Beyoncé's music video has done about as much for world peace, and that he hopes someone points that out. And David Bernstein suggested that perhaps Obama had got the prize for mediating “the Beer Summit,” while one of his readers suggested that maybe Obama got it for being the 10th caller.

Rod Dreher is probably right to say that President Obama won the prize for “the grand achievement of not being George W. Bush.” Orion Jones makes the same point when he says that Obama owes the award to Bush, "for being such a bad guy that his own moderate liberalism seems God-sent.” As John Moltz puts it, “the only reason Obama won the Peace Prize is because the Nobel committee doesn't have an award for ‘Most Improved Nation.’” The truth is that the Nobel Peace Prize has never really been an achievement award. Rather, as a chairman of the prize committee once said, the awarding a Nobel Peace Prize is “to put it bluntly, a political act.” As members of this year’s committee said, the award was given to Obama as a vote of confidence intended to build support for his policies. It is as much for what he represents as for anything he has done. And, as Andrew Sullivan argues, that may be perfectly appropriate.

But a more serious question than whether or not President Obama has earned this award is whether the Nobel Prize Committee should actually be endorsing his policies. We are, as Glenn Greenwald points out, “currently occupying and waging wars in two separate Muslim countries and making clear we reserve the ‘right’ to attack a third.” At the same time we continue to detain people without charges in prisons at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram Airforce Base in Afghanistan in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. While it is unreasonable to expect Obama to have completely remade U.S. policy within his first year in office, it doesn’t seem appropriate to give him a gold star either.

Obama's response to receiving the award—saying he didn’t view the award as a recognition of his own accomplishments but would accept it as a call to action—showed an appropriate amount of humility and grace. But now he has to do something to earn the award he has been given.


Obama's Symbolic Nobel

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