Obama's Nobel Peace Prize hangs with a heavy weight
Commended for trying more US cooperation with the world, he must be wary of also compromising US ideals.
Congratulations to him, yes, but aren't most awards supposedly for results?
Not this one.
Like many previous Peace Prizes, the purpose of this award isn't to recognize past success but to support someone's current efforts that the Nobel committee particularly likes.
And what does the Norway-based group like about Mr. Obama's approach, less than a year into his presidency?
It is his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." In other words, he is being commended for improving on the process of everyone getting along in the world.
That is indeed a worthy desire, and Obama's style of leadership is certainly suited to it. He inspires by playing up commonalities rather than differences. He reaches out to neglected groups. He seeks to reform rather than isolate international institutions that aren't working.
Unlike any previous US president, for example, Obama chaired a special session of the United Nations Security Council. He laid his prestige on the line by convening a summit last month on the issue of ridding the earth of nuclear weapons, a cause that was the second commendation for the peace prize.
Many critics may see this prize as simply a slap by European elite on George W. Bush for neglecting their interests and their fear of a superpower untethered by global constraints. But that criticism ignores a deeper concern in this award – and one that Obama himself may be all too aware of.
The concern is this: How much does the US simply get along with the rest of the world without also going along with practices that rub against its own ideals?
Cooperating in diplomacy is fine until it steps on the principles that have led the United States to become the world's natural leader – in ideas, economy, culture, and global stability.
Take, for instance, the notion implied in the prize's praise for "cooperation." Must the US bend to the interests of a majority of the world's peoples? Such an idea is now widely popular, and summed up in pundit Fareed Zakaria's concept of a "post-American" world.
One powerful institution that represents the vast majority of the globe's population is the Group of 77 nations. This club now includes 132 of the UN's 192 members. It ranges from Brazil to Indonesia to India, with China as a close ally. Yet the G-77 positions are often at odds with those of the US, and its views often dominate the UN.
As the founder of The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, once wrote: "Never breathe an immoral atmosphere, unless in the attempt to purify it." Obama is trying to purify one group, the UN Human Rights Council. The body has long reflected the interests of its most autocratic nations, such as Cuba, China, and Saudi Arabia. He decided to let the US be elected to the body by the UN General Assembly this year, the first time for the US.
If the Nobel committee is correct, Obama is on track to reform this Council and perhaps finally get it to act on the human rights abuses of many of its own members. Can he do it? Or will the US instead be associated with the Council's soft touch for dictators?
And it's not only on human rights where the US and most other nations may differ. Washington is also often at odds with its European allies over the issue of promoting democracy in countries such as Georgia, Burma (Myanmar), and Ukraine.
Democracy and freedom are core values for the US. And after 9/11 especially, promoting those values in Muslim lands has become a stronger national interest. (Woodrow Wilson, champion of democracy promotion, is the last sitting US president to receive the peace prize.)
But Obama won't find the majority of nations backing that ideal. In fact, only 46 percent of UN member states are full-fledged democracies.
So more power to the new US president in earning this prize and as he tries to more closely engage with rogue states and wobbly allies. He is in a delicate dance between get-along and go-along, between good tactics and bad strategy.
Perhaps the Nobel committee might have waited a couple years to see the measure of Obama's actual success in blazing a new world order. But at the least, it has added momentum to this president's worthy hopes.