Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

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Alfred Nobel died in 1896 and aside from the Nobel prizes that were established in his will, one of the most famous of the chemical engineer’s contributions to the world was the invention of dynamite. This morning’s announcement of Barack Obama as this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is nothing if not explosive, but it’s probable that many people who are offering negative takes on this selection understand neither the process nor the purpose of the recognition. It is a bit like a strict vegan’s review of Beef Bourguignon. Having to judge it without tasting it necessarily limits someone’s perspective.

The deadline for Nobel Peace Prize nominations was February 1. It is therefore not a review of Obama’s successes or shortcomings during the first year of his Administration. The committee that selects the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is selected by the Norwegian Parliament. It should be abundantly clear that their take on who should be recognized is going to be a lot different than Rush Limbaugh’s, just as we would certainly have a different Pope if Shiite clerics had replaced the conclave of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel in 2005.

As I write this within an hour of the selection’s announcement, I haven’t had the opportunity to hear the criticism that will be forthcoming, but I can guarantee you that it will be shrill and I can guess who a lot of it will come from: right wing U.S. nationalists. But nationalists are necessarily in an extremely poor position to see things from the perspective of the internationalists who bestow the award. They have a point of view that is, by definition, already largely contrary with the whole point and purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize. You can listen to what they have to say if you want to, but it has almost nothing to do with the Nobel Peace Prize and almost everything to do with advancing an agenda that is often completely at odds with it.

In the eight years of the Administration of George W. Bush, I traveled outside the U.S. more than three dozen times. I had the opportunity to see, firsthand, what happened to the perception of the U.S. outside of our borders. The standing of this country fell dramatically as a direct result of the manner in which President Bush viewed and pursued this country’s foreign and environmental policies. This is not only a matter of my opinion, but something that was clearly documented in many ways through objective measurements.

The Bush Administration took a huge reservoir of international support that was clearly evident on September 12, 2001 and turned it into a tide of contempt with unilateralism and ham-handed foreign policy initiatives that persisted through the end of 2008. The very same people who want you to know it every time President Obama’s favorability numbers fall in the polls wanted you to dismiss it when similar measuring tools were applied to their guy. They want you to remember Copenhagen and forget about Oslo.

The fact is that by just about any objective or subjective measure that you care to apply, U.S. international standing fell like a rock under Bush II. “Who cares what others think of us,” they thundered. But there is a good answer to that question. You should — and it really does matter.

So what did Barack Obama do to win the Nobel Peace Prize? Well, by the February 1 deadline, not all that much — except what was probably the most significant one-day positive turnaround in world opinion that the U.S. has ever experienced. He got elected President of the United States of America.  And the people who have a big problem with Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize today weren’t any more enthusiastic about his accomplishment last November, either.



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