- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Everybody with a website has gone bananas over Obama getting this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, so why shouldn’t I add my two cents? I’m here in Norway at the moment (from which the prize originates), so I want to make it abundantly clear that I had nothing to do with it.
As for my reaction, I’m with the many voices who think this is way, way premature, and also with those who think Obama’s best move would have been to decline it gracefully, while saying he would be thrilled to be deserving at some later date. The Nobel Committee might have felt dissed, but I believe he would have won enormous plaudits elsewhere.
Why is the prize ill-chosen? Because we all know that “talk is cheap,” and thus far that’s mostly what Obama has offered us. We’re getting out of Iraq (though maybe not completely), but George W. Bush had already signed the deal to do that before he left office. We aren’t getting out of Afghanistan any time soon. He’s given a great speech in Cairo, and then whiffed on the follow-through towards Israeli-Palestinian peace. He’s given another nice speech about eliminating nuclear weapons, but anyone want to bet on whether he delivers on that particular pledge? America’s image is improved (except in the Middle East), but I can’t think of a single conflict that has gone away (or even significantly decreased) since he took office. So far, his main tangible foreign policy achievment was getting the Olympic Committee to unite in rejecting Chicago’s bid and awarding the games to Rio.
More importantly, this award risks discrediting the prize even more than some earlier choices. We don’t know what Obama will be forced (or will choose) to do in the rest of his presidency (which could last another 7+ years) and if he ends up escalating any existing conflicts or-heaven forbid-starting a new one, it will make a mockery of the whole idea of the prize. I wouldn’t be surprised if this award doesn’t generate more than a little resentment around the world, especially if U.S. foreign policy changes less than many people still hope it will.
Finally, the Peace Prize is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and all the Norwegians I’ve talked to thus far think it was a bizarre decision. One Norwegian friend had a simple explanation: the chairman of the committee is Thorbjorn Jagland, a former president of the parliament who is apparently something of a running joke in Norwegian political circles and famous for boneheaded statements. My Norwegian friend called this decision “typical.”
In any case, I’m putting in for next year’s peace prize now. I haven’t done anything to deserve it either, but what if I promise to write a great book or article in the next twelve months that will substantially contribute to world peace? In fact, I’ll even promise to retool as an economist and put a mathematical model in the piece, so that I’m eligible for two prizes, not one. OK?
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