As a former chair of the Nobel Peace Prize committee explained in 2001, the award has always been a political act. In giving it this year to Barack Obama, the committee was endorsing the hope, and relief, felt by millions upon millions around the world at the election of America’s new president. The prize was clearly a pointed rebuke to eight years of unilateral recklessness by the Bush administration, which had spurned international organizations and diplomacy, opting instead for preventive war and establishing a network of secret prisons and torture centers. In welcoming Obama’s re-embrace of the global community, the committee was, in a way, honoring the millions of Americans who had voted for him–and who, in so doing, have helped redeem America’s image.
Did Obama “deserve” this honor? Judging by the conventional standards of accomplishment, the answer is no, of course not, as the president himself acknowledged in his humble acceptance. The committee’s official statement insisted otherwise, praising Obama for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy” and attaching “special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” But a hint of a more strategic purpose was provided by the committee’s chair, Thorbjørn Jagland, who said, “It’s important for the committee to recognize people who are struggling and idealistic, but we cannot do that every year. We must from time to time go into the realm of realpolitik. It is always a mix of idealism and realpolitik that can change the world.” Jagland was signaling the committee’s recognition not simply of Obama’s promise but of his power–and that of the American people–to turn the world in a more peaceful direction. The award is thus not just a prize but a plea–to the American people as much as to Obama.
So the question for Americans to ask ourselves is, Do we, the people, deserve the prize? Does our country qualify as a peaceful force in the world? Clearly no, not yet. But do we have the capacity to change? To throw off the bellicose pretensions we have assumed as arrogant Goliath so we can develop a web of more rational and fruitful relations with other nations? That is the audacious proposition Obama has so often put on the table during the past nine months. He allows us to envision radical change in the conduct of our nation.
Repositioning America in the world is an awesomely difficult challenge. Perhaps the prospects for success are easier to see from a distance. Pierre Schori, a former UN ambassador from Sweden, eloquently described Obama’s accomplishments in a Swedish newspaper: “He inspires hope for many dispossessed, but also to us who are worried about how dangerous crises are handled…. He is a new kind of American president, a cosmopolitan with the world on his mind…. He did a great thing for peace, beating Bush and McCain policies…. With Obama in the White House, we are all better off and safer.”
None of this hopeful talk lets Obama off the hook for his wrong turns or omissions (see Naomi Klein on page 11). On the contrary, the prize raises the bar for him. May it strengthen his resolve to work for a nuclear weapons-free world; to truly engage Iran; to end rather than escalate the war in Afghanistan. That is where the people come in. Americans who take seriously their role as citizens have been empowered by Obama’s inspiring words, and by this prize, to judge him more seriously and hold him, and ourselves, accountable to his idealistic vision of what’s possible.