The Great Nobel Battle
By Harald Stanghelle
Like no other politician this decade, Barack Obama has used hope as a political driving force and as a foundation for mobilization.
Translated By Lars Erik Schou
9 December 2009
Edited by Harley Jackson
Norway - Aftenposten - Original Article (Norwegian)
The critics of the Nobel Prize will not dare to mention who has done more to deserve the peace prize than Barack Obama, because the core of the critique is not anger with what he has done, but expectations that Obama will do so much more. That makes the debate, after it was known that the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, was awarded the Nobel peace prize, very special.
That the most prestigious peace prize in the world sparks debate is nothing new. It is also old news that controversial politicians are awarded the prize. But it is definitely new that this debate is more about what the prize winner has not had time to accomplish than for what he has been awarded the prize. Just that simple fact speaks volumes of what hopes are attached to Barack Obama's presidency.
It is tempting to speculate whether Obama would have been awarded the prize if not for eight years of George W. Bush in the White House. Bush's years were when America rightly, but sometimes wrongly, was perceived as the superpower that went its own way. America had political crossings where dialogue was often replaced by confrontation, cooperation by dictate, agreements by unilateralism, and counseling by arrogance. The U.S. engaged in policies that large parts of the world perceived as a recipe for danger, causing these same parts of the world to develop an intense political longing for a more cooperative and globally oriented America.
“Change” was the message that won Barack Obama victory in last year's election. Never, since World War II, has an American presidential candidate won an election with a message that so clearly represented a change in American foreign policy. The closest contender might be the 1980 campaign that brought Ronald Reagan's victory over incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
Barack Obama has the honor of bringing about the most dramatic shift in the climate of international politics since the ghastly terror attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11. He has started to realize his vision for another world at a frantic pace.
That means that America is actively engaging in nuclear disarmament, and that the superpower is once again looking at the UN as an important international instrument. Barack Obama has buried the conflict-inducing missile shield, and thus has laid the foundation for a new treaty with Russia. His Prague speech in April once again set nuclear disarmament on the international agenda, and his invitational Cairo speech in June was a rhetorical restoration of America's relationship with the Muslim world.
Separately, these are all arguments for a peace prize award. The sum of them can hardly make anyone disagree that Barack Obama is the single person who has done more in the last year for “brotherhood between nations,” as Alfred Nobel's testament says. Absolutely none of the Nobel committee's critics has come up with a person who has done more this year. But, for most people, that is not the problem.
“A Peace Prize for Nothing”, “Too Much too Soon”, “Sorry, Obama, You don't Deserve it Yet”, “Peace Prize for Obama, but it's not His Fault” - there has been no shortage of critical and sarcastic titles in the international media since the news broke. However, even in a surprised and critical American media, some people are defending the prize, such as when CNN's Fareed Zakaria rhetorically asked if Mother Theresa put an end to poverty before she was awarded the prize: “Did Al-Baradei eradicate nuclear weapons, or did Woodrow Wilson end all war? The prize is often given on the basis of vision, not accomplished goals."
Of course it is, but it is not so simple when the winner is the American president. Idealistic vision is one thing, but the demands of Realpolitik are another. Joining these two might be possible, but usually, they are opposites.
That is why we know that Obama is bound to disappoint many of the people who have given him a completely unrealistic role as a savior. Reminding people that he is the commander-in-chief of a military power engaged in two wars should suffice, and we know that one of his most important tasks is to serve America's goals as a superpower. We also know that he will not always go about with soft diplomacy and in the interest of the rest of the world.
Yet we also know that the world will be a more dangerous place unless there are politicians who strive to find the common denominator for the demands of Realpolitik and vision that brings hope. Often the temperature of international politics is underestimated – whether it is cold or warm. It is no secret that the personal chemistry between leaders in given situations has often been the deciding factor in the final result.
Politics is not exact science. Policy is now executed on many mutually exclusive interests, cynical decisions, changing moods, and idealistic visions, at best.
Like no other politician this decade, Barack Obama has used hope as a political driving force and as a foundation for mobilization. It helped him win an election, but none of us knows how far it will go when it collides with the brutal demands of Realpolitik. The power of hope is still a force in and of itself – even in international politics. This factor gives the Nobel committee the upper hand at this year's award.
The Nobel history is full of examples in which the Norwegian Nobel committee has chosen laureates who are in the middle of demanding political processes.
The last time it happened was in 2000, when President Kim Dae Jung got the award for his work in reconciling his country and North Korea, an honest attempt one could sum up today as a total failure. Another catastrophe includes the efforts of the 1994 winners Rabin, Peres, and Arafat to find lasting peace in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the winners from the year earlier, Nelson Mandela and Fredrik de Klerk are examples of political Nobel Laureates who succeeded, along with the Northern Irish politicians John Hume and David Trimble from 1998.
That is the tradition of which this year's peace prize becomes part. Practically every other politician in Nobel history has been given the prize as a stimulating pat on the shoulder towards the end of their political processes. Obama is given his at the beginning of his political life. That is what makes this year's prize outstanding.
What a start! What an expectation of more of the same! Also, what a risk of failure – mostly for Obama, but also for the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
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