Obama's Nobel Prize controversy

dennis-altman Professor Dennis Altman
Email: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

First published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 October 2009

Even Barack Obama seemed genuinely surprised by the decision of the Nobel Committee to award him this year’s Peace Prize. Reactions have been largely unsupportive, expressing doubts that a President who has been in office less than a year, and has as yet no concrete achievements in peace making, should be so honoured.

In Norway conservatives are calling for the resignation of the chair of the committee, former Prime Minister, Thorbjoern Jagland, currently secretary general of the Council of Europe. In the United States Republicans verge from polite to apoplectic, with claims that the Prize is a deliberate slight at former President George W Bush.

Jagland has clearly indicated that the award was a deliberate intervention by the committee, appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, to influence global debate. This is not unprecedented: in 1971 the Prize was given to Willy Brandt, then Chancellor of West Germany, and in 1990 to Mikhail Gorbachev. In both cases the Prize was a clear indication of political support for their initiatives, in Brandt’s case to establish better ties with East Germany and in Gorbachev’s case to create perestroika.

One might object that Gorbachev’s Prize followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, whereas Obama’s seems based on a couple of major speeches, in particular on outreach to the Muslim world in Cairo and on nuclear disarmament in Prague. Critics will see the Prize as one for rhetoric not action.

But the distinction between words and action is less clear when it is the President of the United States who is speaking. In the eyes of the committee no-one over the past year has matched Obama’s "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples".  

This is clearly a view from ‘old Europe’, namely the social democratic tradition that both supports the American alliance—Norway is a member of NATO, and has sent troops to Afghanistan—and fears American unilateralism. It is equally a view that many Americans will see as patronising and an attempt to interfere in the domestic politics of the United States.

Two years ago the Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore along with the International Panel on Climate Change. That, too, annoyed American conservatives, especially those who distrust scientific claims about global warming, and who were already annoyed by former-President Jimmy Carter’s Prize in 2002. Republicans claim that Ronald Reagan was far more deserving of the Prize for his role in ending the Cold War.

The last Republican to win a Peace Prize was Henry Kissinger, who in 1973 was awarded it jointly with Le Duc Tho, chief negotiator for North Vietnam, for ending the Vietnam War [Tho refused the Prize]. At the time many opponents of the War were appalled by the recognition of Kissinger, who had been directly implicated in President Nixon’s massive escalation of fighting in the previous years.

But the 1973 award reminds us that the Peace Prize has often gone to people whose records in peace are compromised, and the committee has alternated between honouring people who establish high moral examples—Mother Theresa; Desmond Tutu; Aung San Suu Kyi—and those who exercise power to change the direction of their own policies, as in 1994 when the Prize went to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.

A peace prize by its very nature is deeply political, and the committee has taken similar risks before. In the case of Obama there is a danger that it will be perceived as an attempt to shore up the President at a time when his major domestic initiatives are floundering and there is deep division about what to do in Afghanistan.

Many Americans, and not only ideological conservatives, will see this as a clumsy manoeuvre by ‘’Europe’ to provide political support to Obama too early in his term. Other than the decision not to proceed with nuclear warheads in Eastern Europe he has yet to deliver tangible progress in the Middle East, on climate change and on a solution in Afghanistan.

The Nobel Committee may have made it marginally more difficult for Obama to build the domestic consensus needed to realign United States foreign policy. They would have done better to have honoured a non-American, such as Morgan Tsvangirai. But maybe the lure of bringing Obama to Oslo for the award ceremony overrode political judgement.