Barack Obama is the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. This announcement, made on October 09, was met in large part by disbelief and incredulity worldwide. The recipient himself was compelled to admit, “I do not deserve the the Nobel Peace Prize,” though that did not deter him from turning it down. However, the news has been met with approval in some circles who view the Prize as a reward for intent. As the BBC’s North America editor Mark Mardell explained this phenomenon, “Why did he win?… because he’s not President George W Bush and has steered American foreign policy, or at least its strategy if not its aims, in an opposite direction.” Naturally, the Nobel Committee defended its decision, saying, “only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” As pundits of all colour descended upon the issue, it has become quite clear that the crux of the matter depends upon two factors: 1.) Prematurity, and 2.) Nature of the Prize.
Looking over the last 109 years in which the Prize has been given 109 times to 120 recipients (including thrice to the Red Cross in 1917, 1944, and 1963), it can safely be said that Obama has achieved another first: the first person to be rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize (NPP) for intent. Obama stands alongside winners like John Hume, Wangari Maathai, Kim Dae-jung, Agnesë Bojaxhiu, Jody Williams, Martin Luther King, José Ramos-Horta, Anwar Sadat, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Lech Walesa, Dag Hammarskjöld, Philip Noel-Baker, Lester Pearson, George Marshall, Albert Schweitzer, and Gustav Stresemann. Each and every one of these winners had dedicated their lives to activities promoting the cause of peace before they were awarded the NPP – not one of these previous winners have won on intent as the Nobel Committee is all of a sudden falling over itself to say in defence of their latest trendy decision. Even questionable winners such as Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat had taken monumental steps to bring a vicious conflict to an end – Sadat’s treaty with Israel at Camp David was a remarkable breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations and formed the basis of a similar treaty with Jordan in 1994. In the case of Kissinger, like Sadat, he finally achieved a withdrawal from Vietnam after nearly 30 years of bloodshed. It is frequently pointed out that Kissinger was also responsible for much of that bloodshed but by that token, Sadat’s domestic authoritarianism and consequent body count should have disqualified him as well. Another objection some people may raise is that Aung San Suu Kyi has not achieved much either – this is only partly true. While it is obvious that Burma remains a military dictatorship, not all awards are about success – it is essential to de-couple success from effort. Awards have been given in the past based not on achievement but effort. Nicholas Butler (1931), Frank Kellogg (1929), and Aristide Briand (1926) were awarded the NPP for their efforts in bringing to fruition the Kellogg-Briand Pact that banned all wars. Its failure is quite glaring and was so almost immediately. However, they set a foundation for future legal thought in conflict theory and one of the charges at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II was the violation of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty (along with the 1899 Hague Conventions, the Versailles Treaty, and other treaties of mutual guarantee, arbitration, and non-aggression). Similarly, Aung San Suu Kyi has, since 1988, kept the idea of democracy in Burma alive. Short of Burma specialists, it is unlikely that even the average Ivy League college student can name anyone outside of Aung San Suu Kyi in regard to Burma. She leads the pro-democracy movement as best as she can from under house arrest and has refused to leave the country despite being offered freedom in exile by the military government. Thus, it can be said without hesitation that the NPP being awarded as a call to action is an example of classic CYA (cover-your-ass) tactics by the Nobel Committee and Obama supporters.
The question of prematurity is directly linked to that of the nature of the Prize. If the Prize is for effort and achievement, what has Obama achieved? Even Ronald Reagan achieved the ban on all intermediate nuclear missiles in the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty. Tim Marshall, the foreign affairs editor at Sky News quipped, “There will be people who will say this is a marvellous, inspired award. But next year let’s give it to Miss World. Every year Miss World comes on and says ‘I want world peace and the world free of nuclear weapons’. It’s a hope, an aspiration.” Former Polish President Lech Walesa, who won the prize in 1983, questioned whether Obama deserved it now. “So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far. He is still at an early stage. He is only beginning to act,” Walesa said. Another vitally important consideration has been this: the deadline for nominations for the NPP is February 01. This means that Obama was in power for 11 days in which he allegedly achieved something to deserve what used to be a much-respected award. It is unllikely he did anything before January 20, 2009, for one of the main issues he had to defuse during the US Democratic Primaries and the Presidential Elections was his lack of foreign policy experience – Joe Biden was supposed to be the man to guide him through the murky waters of international diplomacy. So if credit has to be given for a new vision that inspired the world in the pre-20.01.2009 period, it should be to Joe Biden and not Obama.
[DIVERSION 1: On a side note, it should also be mentioned that Mohandas K. Gandhi, the author of non-violent struggle, has not
received a Nobel Peace Prize (nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and 1948). The Nobel Foundation, cognisant of this glaring omission, has put up a web page with their explanation as to why he did not receive an award. Jacob Worm-Müller wrote of Gandhi during the 1937 selection process, “He is, undoubtedly, a good, noble and ascetic person – a prominent man who is deservedly honoured and loved by the masses of India … There are sharp turns in his policies, which can hardly be satisfactorily explained by his followers. (…) He is a freedom fighter and a dictator, an idealist and a nationalist. He is frequently a Christ, but then, suddenly, an ordinary politician.” In October 1947, Gunnar Jahn wrote, “While it is true that he (Gandhi) is the greatest personality among the nominees – plenty of good things could be said about him – we should remember that he is not only an apostle for peace; he is first and foremost a patriot. (…) Moreover, we have to bear in mind that Gandhi is not naive. He is an excellent jurist and a lawyer.” The irony cannot be escaped here. Finally, it has been said that the Prize cannot be awarded posthumously as per the stipulations of Alfred Nobel himself. This was not true in 1948. In fact, Hammarskjöld was awarded the prize posthumously in 1961. It was only in 1974 that the rule was introduced to disallow posthumous awards.]
Obama seems to be a decent human being, and I wish him well. He is in an ugly profession and he will need all the help he can get to navigate its tricky shoals. That does not entitle him or make him worthy of the Nobel peace Prize just yet. Had Obama refused the award, he would have only raised his stature, but a politician knowing his own worth is a rarity – Obama has shown himself to be only, as Worm-Müller wrote of Gandhi, an ordinary politician. This award not only makes a mockery of the NPP but also devalues the work of most of its previous winners and the toil of many peace activists today, Morgan Tsvangirai and Hu Jia coming to mind most. By this single gesture, perhaps in the desire to appear relevant to a younger generation not fully aware of the problems of the world, the Nobel Committee has taken away the prestige and honour of the Prize.
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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.