Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama only nine months into his term brought surprise and delight in many parts of the world – for those who see it as a broad marker of hope and future global harmony at a time when wars and rumors of wars are deeply troubling.
But the Norwegian Nobel committee announcement Friday brought ample doses of befuddlement and skepticism among officials used to years of hard work to end conflict. Absent a significant peace deal, they worry, awarding the prize to a new president is premature, or could backfire by creating unreasonable expectations of the White House.
The Nobel committee said the award was for Obama's efforts to bring "a new climate in international politics," for which the American leader is "the world's leading spokesman."
At this point, diplomats argue, how the White House wears the prize – in humility or in triumph – will bear greatly on whether politicians and media around the world will accept the choice of the US president, which they say is symbolic rather than substantive.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said he was "deeply humbled" by the decision of the Nobel Committee. "I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize — men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace. But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women, and all Americans, want to build."
A changed world?
Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who won the award in 1994, captured the way the Obama presidency has changed global views of America in an effusive congratulatory letter.
"Very few leaders if at all were able to change the mood of the entire world in such a short while with such profound impact. You provided the entire humanity with fresh hope," Mr. Peres wrote."Under your leadership, peace became a real and original agenda. And from Jerusalem, I am sure all the bells of engagement and understanding will ring again."
Many average folks from across the globe said the award ratifies a weary hope for peace.
"It's OK," says Dieter Bosche, who heads a German agriculture feed company, sitting with four friends at lunch in Berlin. "It's good for the new politics Obama represents, and good for the direction of the US. We want this direction to continue."
In Mexico City, some residents responded similarly, even though Latin America had strong contenders for the award, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and Piedad Cordoba, an influential peacebroker in Colombia.
A group of messengers standing on a sidewalk praised the decision. "He is a man of peace, he deserves it," says Jose Domingo Patino.
Countering experts who see the tribute as premature, Mr. Patino's colleague, Juan Manuel Montano, says that as leader of the most influential country in the world, Obama can make more of a difference with the prize. "He is looking for ways to build relationships with countries around the world, including Mexico," says Mr. Montano.
But Obama's ability to deliver on that hope is what troubles some observers.
"I couldn't believe it," says a Scandinavian diplomat whose wife called him Friday with the news. "I actually felt a little embarrassed for Obama, and for the Nobel committee. He [Obama] is going to have to accept this with the acknowledgement that he has still to earn it."
That sentiment was echoed in Britain, where the US president still enjoys high levels of approval. "He is a great, eloquent speaker and people admire that, but Tony Blair was also very eloquent, and many Britons are now cynical about what [Blair] ultimately achieved," says Dominic Dyer, executive director of the American European Institute in London.
Mairead Corrigan, a Belfast-born peace campaigner who was a joint winner of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Northern Ireland, said she was "very sad" to hear the news. "President Obama has yet to prove that he will move seriously on the Middle East, that he will end the war in Afghanistan and many other issues," she told the BBC.
In Pakistan, opinion ranged from surprise to outrage, with doubts expressed about cooperating with the US in the war on terror, paranoia about the expansion of the US Embassy in Islamabad, and fingerpointing over unrest and bombings. In one of the softer comments offered, Cyril Almeida, the assistant editor of the newspaper Dawn, says that people shouldn't have to think about why someone received such an award. "This decision will be met at the least by a collective scratching of heads, if not genuine disbelief."
In India, meanwhile, some pointed out that their country's paragon of peace, Mahatma Gandhi, never won the Nobel Peace Prize. But people also gave a nod to the choice.
"I suppose it's more about hope than actual achievement to date," says Meenakshi Banguly, senior researcher for South Asia with Human Rights Watch. She credits Obama with changing the atmopshere. "In South Asia, there was a lot of anti-Americanism that followed 9/11 and the so-called war on terror that a lot of Muslims felt was directed at their community. President Obama came out and said that very clearly, and that was a reason for hope."
Mixed views in the Middle East
In the Middle East, some worried that the award would pressure Obama to act in ways that were not in their interests.
Pinchas Wallerstein, a veteran leader of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank, said that most Israeli Jews feel threatened by Obama.
"Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize doesn't prove anything. [Yasser] Arafat and [Yitzhak] Rabin received the Nobel Prize,'' he said. "Unfortunately, that has no significance that's relevant to peace. It has a public relations significance."
And among Palestinians, there was the sense that little had changed in their daily lives since Obama took office.
"The prize is good for him personally, but for us, we don't see an improvements," says Nashat Aqtash, a professor at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, the West Bank. "The Palestinian Authority is getting weaker. Gaza is under siege, so what kind of peace are we talking about here?"
Syrians, however, were more positive, praising Obama for reaching out to Arabs, and Syria in particular. "Everyone here appreciates that he is trying to do something concerning the peace process between Arabs and the Israelis," says Marwan Kabalan, a political analyst.
Global poll: Obama highly popular
Former Bush administration official Philip Zelikow, at an American Academy talk in Berlin Thursday evening before the prize was announced, argued that while Obama has made significant moves internationally, "It is still all speeches…. We won't know until next year whether they [the speeches] mean anything."
Just last week, Obama's standing in the world was reinforced by a survey that indicated the US president has rapidly changed the global perception of the United States from something of a bully to a country willing to consult. (Read about the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index survey).
That assessment was palpable in Russia, where Obama's influence is credited with shifting relations away from what some called a "second cold war" with the previous administration. The choice was understandable, according to some experts.
"It seems logical," says Pavel Zoltaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of US-Canada Studies in Moscow. "It reflects the world's support for his promises to move in a new direction, and hope that he will have the strength to see it through."
In Kenya, Damaris Akaina Stephen, sipping tea in a dusty roadside shop in the northern drought-hit town of Archer's Post, 210 miles north of Nairobi, concurs: "He will succeed to bring peace across so many people, and it is good that these people recognize that he is in our hearts as a hero who can lead us by his good example."
But even in Kenya, the homeland of Obama's father as well as 2004 Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, the award was met with surprise and qualified congratulations. The country is mired in political deadlock which is delaying reforms designed to sidestep a repeat of the deadly clashes which erupted after the 2007 presidential elections.
"I'm proud that another Kenyan has won the prize," said Mohamed Leeresh, a businessman also having tea in Archer's Post. "But what peace has he brought yet? Our people are suffering from fighting brought by drought, there is no peace, only fear of violence."
Asia: focus on nuclear weapons
In South Korea, commentators pointed to something that the Nobel committee singled out: nuclear weapons. Yonhap News Agency speculated that Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world was the main reason behind him taking the prize. Seoul's Segye Ilbo also viewed Obama as having won the award largely because of his "vision and efforts" towards a world without nuclear arms.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama extended congratulations to the president from Beijing, Yonhap reported. The prime minister is set hold talks on the North Korean nuclear issue with Chinese and South Korean counterparts. Earlier in the day, Mr. Hatoyama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed to a joint stance on the North's atomic weapons.
A number of Chinese dissidents were passed over in favor of Obama, included human rights activist Hu Jia and Wei Jingsheng, who spent more than a decade in prison after calling for reforms to the Communist system.
Contributors to this story included: Sara Miller Llana in Mexico, Ben Arnoldy in India, Issam Ahmed in Pakistan, Fred Weir in Russia, Julien Barnes-Dacey in Syria, Josh Mitnick in Israel, Ben Quinn in Britain, Ben Hancock in South Korea, and Michael Pflanz in Kenya.