On the weekend, Australia’s former foreign minister Alexander Downer weighed into the reaction to Barack Obama’s surprise win of the Nobel Peace Prize, calling it a farce that has discredited the award. Like Kanye West storming the stage of the MTV Video awards to express his anger when Taylor Swift beat out Beyonce, Downer pronounced Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, ignored after years of struggling for human rights in his country, a more worthy selection.
He isn’t alone. Response to Obama’s win has become a watershed that signals the official end of Obamamania and suggests the world’s most esteemed award might also be overrated. Lech Walesa, ex-president of Poland who won in 1983 summed up the most common all splendid oratory-no action yet criticism of Obama: “Well, there’s hasn’t been any contribution to peace yet,” he said, apparently not impressed by his cancelling the U.S. missile-defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic. “He’s proposing things, he’s initiating things, but he is yet to deliver.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Iain Martin pronounced Obama’s win “post-modern,” noting “a leader can now win the peace prize for saying that he hopes to bring about peace at some point in the future.” And post-modern it is—the notion that positive thinking can be conflated with positive results, like The Secret unleashed on the worldwide political stage.
Back in the old days, it took two former U.S. presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, a combined total of 12 years before they were given the award. Obama had been in office not 11 days before the Feb. 1 deadline for this year’s submissions. (The day he heard about his surprise win he met with his War Council to discuss sending more troops to Afghanistan.) But some would say that the quickness of the recognition has meaning. In a letter to Obama Friday, President Shimon Peres of Israel (who won the award jointly with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994) congratulated Obama for bringing climate change, figuratively speaking, to the world stage so swiftly: “Very few leaders, if any at all, were able to change the mood of the entire world in such a short while with such a profound impact. You provided the entire humanity with fresh hope, with intellectual determination, and a feeling that there is a lord in heaven and believers on earth.”
That fresh hope derived in part from Obama also signaling the exit of the war-enabler George W. Bush, which many suggested was why Obama got the award. As Air America correspondent Ana Marie Cox Twittered: “Apparently Nobel Prizes are now being awarded to anyone who is not George Bush.” The committee echoed Obama’s signature “hope” theme in its citation: “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.” It focused less on accomplishment than intent, referring to the president’s “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” Later, under fire, Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland tried to make it less airy-fairy: “We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year,” he said adding: “We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do.”
In other words, the award is a carrot, dangled before the world’s most mighty politician at a nerve-wracking moment, like hypnotherapy: you are officially a Man of Peace: act like one. Last year’s winner, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, said as much: “We do not yet have peace in the Middle East… this time it was very clear that they wanted to encourage Obama to move on these issues…” he said. “This is a clear encouragement to do something on this issue, I wish him good luck.”
John Mathews, Senior Fellow of the New America foundation, posited that Obama’s selection was tactical in another way: “the choice of Obama has the whole world talking about the Nobel Prize. If they’d pick some Cambodian rice farmer/anti-war activist, no one would have noticed.” He applauded such strategizing: “because it’s controversial it gets common people all the over world talking, debating and thinking about peace and diplomacy.”
While suggesting that bold-faced names get attention may be cynical, it reflects a decided trend in Nobel Prize winners over the past century. In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the prize should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.” The first winners in 1901, Jean Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross and initiator of the Geneva Convention, and Frédéric Passy, the founder of the first French peace society, were unimpeachable.
Over the years, the Committee has been increasingly flexible to the point of eccentricity in interpreting Nobel’s edict. Consider that Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat have both received the prize while Gandhi never made the cut. (Foreign Policy has a list of notable also rans.) And there have been fewer winners like Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian scientist and explorer who originated the Nansen passports for refugees, and more international personalities working to effect broader social change such as Mother Teresa and Al Gore. If Bono received it, no one would blink.
In a letter sent within hours of the Nobel announcement Friday, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele wrote mockingly that the only reason Obama won it was his “awesomeness,” noting: “It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working toward peace and human rights.” In other words, Obama has won the popularity contest this year and is having his Oscar moment. “This is the equivalent [sic] to the Academy Awards giving the lifetime achievement award to Hannah Montana,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who probably meant to say Miley Cyrus, but the point’s the same.
But, this outrage towards Obama’s questionable win is actually playing out quite unexpectantly—putting the spotlight on those who better deserved it. This year’s Nobel shortlist of 172 people and 33 organizations was the longest ever, and included Sima Samar, a brave female Afghan doctor who is an outspoken activist for women’s rights, Chinese dissidents Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia, Eastern Congo Pastor Bulambo Lembelembe Josue, French-Colombian politician and former hostage Ingrid Betancourt, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang, and even Bill Clinton, Writing on Slate.com, John Dickerson used the win to take a jab at Obama: “Human rights activists in China must be particularly miffed since the Obama administration has downplayed China’s bad human rights record.”
Small wonder a “surprised” and “deeply humbled” Obama is trying to distance himself from the vaunted prize. “I will accept this award as a call to action,” he said, trying to deflect the glory (and scrutiny): “This award is not simply about the efforts of my administration—it’s about the courageous efforts of people around the world. And that’s why this award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity,” he said, sounding a lot like an actor picking up an Oscar.
His best act was stealthily dismissing the award’s importance via a cute out-of-the-mouths-of-babes parable involving his daughters: “After I received the news, Malia walked in and said, ‘Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize and it is [family dog] Bo’s birthday. And then Sasha added: ‘Plus we have a three day weekend coming up’.” The lesson from the latest Nobel Laureate? It may be the Nobel Prize but it’s just an award. Get a grip.