Obama Wins Nobel – Really?

Obama meets Abbas

Obama meets Abbas

Did Obama deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

I do think he’s a good president – strong coming out of the gate, rhetorically gifted, focused, centrist – and certainly superior to the other options, despite the downturn in popularity, but the Nobel?

Alfred Nobel stipulated that the Peace Prize be “dedicated to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.

Taking a quick glance at recent past winners, I am struck by how few meet this criteria in any direct way – or rather, how flexible the Nobel committee is in their reading of it.

Last year’s winner, Martti Ahtissari was a diplomat and President of Finland, and obviously fulfills the criteria over the course of a long career of mediation and negotiation in international conflict.

Earlier winners, however, such as the IPCC and Al Gore, Muhammed Yunus’ Green Bank, and Wangari Muta Maathai, although truly admirable and certainly influential, don’t, strictly speaking, have much to do with encouraging international fraternity and reducing standing armies.

Muhammed Yunus is a microfinancier, which is wonderful and certainly creates a lot of opportunity and independence, particularly among women. The Nobel brings attention to the goal of eliminating poverty in a ‘teach a person to fish’ kind of way, encouraging a move towards investment.

The IPCC/Al Gore, and Wangari Maathai are dedicated to environmental causes. With so many people blaming climate change on sunspots or subscribing to other unscientific beliefs that allow them to continue polluting with impunity, it’s great for the Nobel committee to realize the international importance of people who work towards education and developing green economies.

One could argue that environmental activists and microfinancers help reduce armies, promote peace congresses, and encourage international fraternity by focusing on borderless problems (the environment) and international investments that reduce the competition for resources that results in black markets, corruption, and a reliance on military strength. Or one might find that a bit of a stretch.

So – Obama. He’s been President of the US for under a year, and, according to whitehouse.gov he has:

• Ordered the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay and a review of our detention and interrogation policy, and prohibited the use of torture.
• Appointed Special Envoys for Climate Change, Southwest Asia, the Middle East, Sudan, and a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
• Announced a plan to responsibly end the War in Iraq.
• Announced a new strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
• Announced a strategy to address the international nuclear threat.
• Agreed to negotiation of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.
• Established a new “U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue”.
• Announced new policy steps towards Cuba.

His platform has certainly been one of reaching out to other nations, particularly ones with which the US has had a tense or antagonistic relationship (sometimes, perhaps, at the expense of the relationship with allies – keep your friends close…) – Iran, Cuba, even North Korea, have all had a little special attention. Some of his earliest speeches were designed to show a desire for understanding between the US and Middle Eastern countries.

Obviously, as part of this reaching out, there has been encouragement for countries to stop developing technology that could be used for creating nuclear weapons. So far, so spot on.

But. The US military. Not only has Obama increased troop investment in Afghanistan, but in order for the military to leave, there has to be a successful, standing military (US-friendly) that can take over the task of hunting down local terrorists in perpetuity.

And obviously, there is no way that the US standing army will shrink. Unless it officially shrinks to be supplemented with a standing force of independent security contractors. Scary.

So, two out of three? And three years to go – maybe Obama was a more obvious choice than he seems.

Update: in response to this over at Slate – which says, basically, that no one should care about the judgments of five Norweigans (or Swedes, in the case of the prize for literature).
1. There is no such thing as a completely objective prize – no matter the provenance, it is always a matter of the jury’s opinion.
2. There is extant cachet in the Nobel because of the history of judgment; if it was really irrelevant, no one would take any notice except the enriched winner (and their agent and accountant)
3. It is poor logic to criticize a prize by listing non-winners. There are 6.2 billion people on the planet – that’s a lot to choose from. Not awarding Gandhi doesn’t mean the prize is bad, or that Mandela is somehow superior, it just means they are limited by time and money and have to make a choice. Not everyone gets a gold star, no matter how deserving.
4. There is a lot of press on the Obama win because of Obama, not because of the prize itself. I bet Anne Applebaum, the author of the article, would be hard pressed to name last year’s winner without looking it up. Though I bet she knows that Al Gore and Jimmy Carter are winners – why? They are already famous.

image from zimbio.com,

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