Obama Nobel Peace Prize: an award for vision if not accomplishment

2009 Nobel Peace Prize to Obama reflects European appreciation for his cooperative, engaged approach to world politics.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Barack Obama comments on winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize outside the White House on Friday.

A vision for approaching the world's major conflicts through dialogue and engagement rather than confrontation – one seen to contrast starkly with that of the previous American president – won US President Barack Obama this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

In announcing its surprise decision, the Norwegian Nobel Committee cited Mr. Obama's "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." The word "efforts" hints at the view from around the world – from laborers in Baghdad to world leaders – that awarding the prize to an American president in office just nine months was recognition more of Obama's aspirations than of any particular accomplishments.

The award, which caught the White House off guard, reflected a particularly European appreciation for Obama. After what Europeans widely called a dark period for America under President Bush, they see Obama as a leader who is returning the United States to a place of global leadership in challenges such as nuclear disarmament, the West's relations with the Islamic world, and climate change. "Thanks to" Obama, the committee said, "the USA is now playing a more constructive role" in international diplomacy.

That appreciation was captured in the words of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said the peace prize for Obama recognizes the "return of America into the hearts of the people of the world."

The Nobel Committee's award to Obama was unusual in that the annual peace prize has traditionally recognized accomplishments or a life's body of work. But as the committee recognized in announcing the award, its own agenda is one "for which Obama is now the world's leading spokesman."

"Obama's agenda – a world of zero nuclear weapons, fighting climate change, addressing Middle East peace, repairing relations between the US and the rest of the world, seeking rapprochement between the US and some if its major adversaries – seems so consistent with the purposes of the Nobel Peace Prize that even though Obama is in the early stages, the committee felt his presidency warranted recognition," says Charles Kupchan, an expert in US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Obama's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons is a case in point. While not the first US president to aspire to such a goal – even Ronald Reagan said he dreamed that dream – Obama has planted the vision on the world stage. In a speech in Prague in the Czech Republic in April, he spoke of "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Last month he took the issues of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament to the United Nations, becoming the first US president to preside over a session of the Security Council.

Some pundits in the US suggested that Obama should respectfully turn down the prize and acknowledge that he has yet to turn his vision into concrete results on any of the challenges he hopes to address. The White House did say Obama felt "humbled" upon being awakened to receive the news.

But top aides said they assumed the president – who set aside an unusual amount of time in his initial months in office for a series of speeches in foreign capitals from Moscow to Cairo and Accra in Ghana to lay out a new vision for the world – would go to Oslo to receive the prize.

And to deliver the customary, visionary speech.


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