Friday, October 09, 2009

On the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize

This morning, US President Barack Obama was announced as the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, following a unanimous vote by the Nobel committee. He is only the third sitting president in history with the honour, after Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland announced that President Obama was being given the award "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons."

Naturally, this announcement is international news, and quite understandably, it has been followed by intense debate over whether the President deserves the award. Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri remarked, "Obama has a long way to go still and lots of work to do before he can deserve a reward. Obama only made promises and did not contribute any substance to world peace." This is likely not a very surprising announcement.

However, what has surprised me the most in many ways is the response from many within the United States itself. Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele has said:
The real question Americans are asking is, "What has President Obama actually accomplished?" It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights. One thing is certain -- President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action.

To me, this seems like an unnecessary interjection of partisan politics. As a recognition of international peace efforts, a Nobel Peace Prize will almost never be awarded for job creation or fiscal responsibility. I will not insult Mr. Steele's intelligence, and instead assume that he knows this. Steele's statement, then, reads as a deliberate attempt to avoid actual contribution to the discussion on foreign policy. It amounts to a person winning an Olympic medal for the 100m dash and being criticized for not playing tennis. It also seems to be evidence of a conscious attempt to bias the discussion of fiscal responsibility in the first place - "good" responsibility depends largely on one's ideological approach to the term - 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics Laureate Paul Krugman, Keynesian economics, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal all suggest that large scale government spending during an economic recession is a good way to stimulate growth. This is all ignoring, of course, the fact that TARP, the initial American stimulus plan, as well as the ballooning of the federal debt, are attributable to the previous president, Republican George W. Bush. See? Needless politics.

Statements about "concrete results" also fail to take into consideration one very important reality: unlike the other Nobel Prizes, the Nobel Peace Prize is not awarded simply on the basis of tangible accomplishments. Instead, it is often awarded as a grand gesture, a statement on current or recent events. In 1989, in the wake of the Tienanmen Square massacre, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize, despite not actually achieving his goals. Instead, it was a rebuke of Tiananmen Square and, in the words of the Committee, "He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people." Here, it was the advocacy and intent that mattered.

Taken in this light, and coming so quickly after President Obama's election, it's hard not to see the awarding of the prize as a statement on the results of the election and the previous president. In the announcement, Jagland specifically states that the award recognizes the importance President Obama places on multilateral diplomacy and the USA "now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting." All that seems to be missing is the actual indictment of President Bush.

I think this is what worries Mr. Steele and the RNC: the world is recognizing the shift in America's foreign policy approach, which can be easily tied to the change in governance from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. It's as much of an indictment of the Republican Party's emphasis on unilateral action as it is a recognition of President Obama's emphasis on the opposite. This likely hurts a great deal.

For the record, I agree that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama is premature, and I would very much like to have been able to see the direction of his presidency over more time before making such an important statement as the Nobel Peace Prize. However, even President Obama himself agrees that the award is, at best, premature, and that he is currently undeserving of the award. In a public statement, he has thus resolved to view the award "as a call to action — a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century", in addition stating that it is not an award for him, but instead that it should be "shared by everyone who strives for justice and dignity." He will be donating his $1.5 million prize to charity.

In this spirit, I encourage my fellow critics of the awarding of the prize to President Obama to take his statement seriously. If we see it as our own call to action, to make our own neighborhoods, cities and nations better places, then perhaps the awarding of the Prize will not have been entirely misdirected. This is the heart of modern democracy, after all: the perfect desire to better our imperfect world.