Obama in power (11): Hope’s prize

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee has not done either President Obama or itself any favours by awarding him this year’s prize. It’s an award for promise rather than achievement. Read the citation and it sounds pretty much like saying, ‘We award the prize to the most popular man in the world because we like his views.’

The risk for Obama in this is that he is being set up for failure. Let’s face it, his June speech in Cairo on the Middle East was absolutely brilliant as I said already but he faces mountainous problems both at home and in the region before there is a real likelihood of success.

  • On Israel-Palestine, neither of the parties is where Obama would need them to be in order to facilitate progress towards a final settlement. Indeed, “settlement” – there’s a word to conjure with. Until Obama can make his will prevail over that of the Israeli government on settlements, the path to a settlement is hard to see. 
  • In Iraq, fighting continues and escalated over the summer and his plan to withdraw US troops is not the same as either planning for peace in that country or actually achieving it.
  • If Iran continues along its nuclear path the US will face some pretty hard choices and even if military action looks less likely from an Obama than a Bush adminsitration, it has signally not been ruled out. 

Outside the region in Afghanistan, there will not be cuts in US forces, we’re told, so the choice is between steady state and increased numbers. Which doesn’t seem to betoken the achievement of peace any time soon.

On nuclear weapons, which the citation particularly emphasises, the vision of a nuclear-free world is bold, was shared by Ronald Reagan, and is certainly also a long way off.

Yes, so many things that Obama has said are really wonderful (though not all of them) but the issue of actual achievement is real, ugly and won’t go away.

Indeed, I suspect that through this autumn and winter there will be many people, not least among Obama’s Republican opponents in the US, who will take an increased pleasure from anything they can do to stymie and block his plans on any and all policies on international politics. At home there are some indications already that the award may hurt as much as or more than it helps. That may also be true for some groups in the Middle East and South Asia who are scepticial about the real deliverables from his many fine speeches or simply and straightforwardly actively opposed to Obama’s agenda.

And the difficult truth is that on climate and health reform, two big issues on which he wanted to deliver this year, Obama is finding it somewhere between impossible and extremely difficult to come up with the goods.

Meanwhile, in Oslo, the Nobel Commitee will contemplate its 2010 and after prize awards in the shadow of its 2009 choice. The prize was not awarded for achievement this year. Will it be next or has it been devalued?

7 thoughts on “Obama in power (11): Hope’s prize

  1. Agree, agree, agree… to quote a friend “when did the Nobel Peace Prize become preemptive?”

    My theory: star-struck Norwegians who’d been turned down for an official state visit from him thinking “hmm, how can we be certain to get Obama to Oslo?”

  2. My first reaction was similar to Dan’s. Then I reminded myself that – contrary to what some of the international media commentators appear to believe, Obama did not “win” the prize. He was awarded it by a small group of aging Norwegians from a list of nominees which is long and very diverse. Who, maybe, decided to make a tactical play which might be quite smart. Why get stuck on the idea that the prize should be for things already done? Why not make a future play? For Desmond Tutu, I know, the prize was a door opener deluxe for him to influence things here and there. Giving the prize to Obama might (how important is the prize, anyway?) have several positive effects beyond the the controversy it has already stimulated. The gesture may well sustain the focus on Obama’s intentions and thereby provide him with some more encouragement to pursue them.
    As to the suggestion that the aging Nobel gang did this to get Obama to Norway……too cynical, friend: however disparaging my comment about aging Norwegians may be, some of them are fine people with a deep belief in the value of peaceful behaviour!

  3. Henrik Schmitz in Germany notes that the news of the award was made on the day that marked the 20th anniversary of the mass demonstration in Leipzig that marked a turning point for peaceful change in eastern Europe:

    Wouldn’t it have been a great symbol if on 9 October, the day that marked the turning point in Germany, if the academy had awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the people who actually managed to start a revolution to promote, and eventually to accomplish, greater freedom, justice and peace – that is the people who were instrumental to ensure that the revolution in the GDR in 1989 was a peaceful revolution.


  4. To realise the promise for which he may have been awarded the prize, Obama must wrest the peacebuilding potential of his office out of the grip of the US electoral cycle. To do this will require dexterity, courage and the expenditure of political capital.
    We will know if he manages it by the continuation of the USA’s (not “Obama’s”) peace initiatives in future presidencies. We will have a sense that he is working towards it if he avoids framing success in the Middle East (or anywhere else) in terms of high profile interim agreements posing as peace settlements, and instead tries to help create an enabling environment for peace. No evidence yet that this is his approach.

  5. I interpret it as a prize for the principles, attitude, rhetoric, and understanding that tend to promote peace rather than war. He is not beyond criticism and he may not be able to translate these characteristics into achievements, but they deserve recognition in themselves. It is an achievement to be a decent well-intentioned person, rather than a warmonger beholden to war-profiteers like his predecessor. Maybe it seems naive to praise values and good intentions before they have led to “successes”, but without them, he would be leading in a different direction. And maybe the prize will help him maintain and act on his values in the face of all that realpolitik.

  6. I tend to agree with Catherine (Woollard), but would take it one step further. I think this is the Nobel prize committee taking a calculated gamble – they have used the prize, a worldwide focal point guaranteed to get people talking, to say
    “We, representatives of the rest of the world have listened to what you, the singularly most powerful man on the planet, have said, and we like it. You’ve talked the talk, but can you now walk the walk? That is what we want, and what you must endeavour to do”
    They’ve issued a challenge, and it is a gamble, but if it results in the chance for a more peaceful world, isn’t it worth it?

  7. Thanks for the comment, Matt (and others): I think the problem that I see with this award lies in the politics of it all. OK, this is a challenge (but did he need it? – if he isn’t all fired up already, would this help?) and OK I’ll buy an argument you don’t make that it’s intended to encourage him (though, frankly, if he needs encouragement, I would find that discouraging) – but, for the moment, all such arguments are accepted. But in the US this award will increase the level of hope against which his achievements will be measured: the higher the hopes, the more achievement he must deliver or else, in 2010, the democrat majority in Congress is at risk and, in 2012, so is his re-election. The Nobel Committee has raised the bar – indeed, that’s why you like the prize going to him. But it’s exactly that which worries me. That’s why I said the award sets him up for failure. Today’s (13 Oct) post goes into it a bit more.

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