Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Give Obama a Break

The Nobel Peace Prize has long been about vision and aspiration, as much as concrete accomplishment. In Oslo, let the U.S. president accept his prize in peace.

Getty Images/Win McNamee
Getty Images/Win McNamee
Getty Images/Win McNamee

President Barack Obama might look upon his Dec. 10 trip to Oslo, where he is due to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, as something of a reprieve before he arrives for difficult negotiations at the Copenhagen climate summit. However, his time in Norway will hardly be a holiday in the sun.

When the U.S. president lands in Norway, we will likely -- again -- get dragged into an unfortunate conversation detailing the innumerable ways he is undeserving of the honor. The bottom line for most critics, regardless of political affiliation, is that Obama has not done enough for peace.

President Barack Obama might look upon his Dec. 10 trip to Oslo, where he is due to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, as something of a reprieve before he arrives for difficult negotiations at the Copenhagen climate summit. However, his time in Norway will hardly be a holiday in the sun.

When the U.S. president lands in Norway, we will likely — again — get dragged into an unfortunate conversation detailing the innumerable ways he is undeserving of the honor. The bottom line for most critics, regardless of political affiliation, is that Obama has not done enough for peace.

Then again, if you review the history, and hold some previous American peace-prize winners to the same lofty standards as modern critics would hold Obama, you’ll realize that they hardly have unassailable track records. In one sense, the Nobel Peace Prize has always been aspirational — commemorating what an individual stands for and might achieve, not always what has already been accomplished.

Theodore Roosevelt became the first American Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1906. He received the award for his role in the negotiations of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. But how much credit does Roosevelt really deserve? Both parties were already looking to cease hostilities. Russia was on the verge of defeat, and Japan was running out of financial resources to wage war. Roosevelt can be credited with ushering in a new era of diplomatic negotiations — multitrack diplomacy — but he did not succeed in achieving anything other than a fleeting peace agreement. 

Next up: Woodrow Wilson, who received the award for founding the League of Nations in 1919. On the heels of World War I, the Nobel Committee lauded the idea of collective security. Nevertheless, Wilson’s vision quickly turned illusory; the league was powerless to prevent Europe from falling into the abyss of World War II.

And Al Gore? His 2007 prize recognized his efforts to put global warming on the international political agenda. That was a noble step, but as yet, only a first step. With greenhouse gas emissions on the rise and an enforceable international climate code still the stuff of dreams, the international community certainly has no peace of mind yet about how it will cope with climate change.

These former peace-prize recipients have one quality in common: Each of them embodies a bold vision for the future, even if their vision has yet to be fully realized. Does this sound familiar today?

Reasoned voices were largely inaudible amidst the not-so-analytical shouting match that is sadly typical of the fractious political discourse in the United States today. Some even suggested that Obama won the prize "for trashing America"(Sean Hannity) or because he is black (Ann Coulter). The negative spin on Obama’s peace prize is particularly unfortunate considering the reconciliatory nature of the award he is to receive on Thursday.

Many scholars posit that Alfred Nobel instituted the prize out of remorse over his signature invention, dynamite. Because the Swedish chemist did not elaborate in his will on his rationale for the award, we will never know with certainty its intellectual origins. The notion that the peace prize represents Nobel’s deathbed repentance has its utility. After all, the same inclination that may underlie the peace prize resides at the heart of conflict-resolution: apologizing.

Can you think of any other nation that would have responded in such a negative manner to the announcement that its leader had received the Nobel Peace Prize? Does anyone remember Finns, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Kenyans, Iranians, or Koreans in recent years protesting their fellow citizens receiving the symbolic award?

Fortunately, it’s not too late for Americans to accept Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize as the national treasure it is. This week, the president of the United States is being honored as the leading voice on issues related to peace in 2009. When he walks across the stage in Oslo, it should be a moment of pride and patriotism for all Americans.

Johan Bergenas is the deputy director of the Managing Across Boundaries initiative at the Stimson Center.

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