Did he really earn it?

Barack Obama’s Nobel seems based on good intentions

Did he really earn it?“Certainly from our standpoint, this gives us a sense of momentum,” said a State Department spokesman of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, “when the United States has accolades tossed its way, rather than shoes.” It is true that Obama is more popular abroad than George W. Bush, whom an Iraqi journalist once pelted with his footwear. But what has the new President actually done in a mere 10 months in office to put him in the same league as past laureates such as Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa? And what made him more deserving than other contenders the committee passed up, ranging from Chinese dissidents to the student protesters who risked their lives to stand up to the government in Tehran?

The Nobel committee, a group of five members appointed by the Norwegian parliament, gave four main reasons for their choice in a written citation. They noted Obama’s focus on strengthening international diplomacy and supporting the United Nations, his “work for a world without nuclear weapons,” his attention to climate change, and his improvement of human rights. In each area, Obama has made a start—but in most cases, it has been more symbolic than concrete.

The committee stated that Obama’s “vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.” Obama made his first over seas trip to Prague on April 5, where he delivered an ambitious speech committing the U.S. to achieving nuclear disarmament and to beginning to reduce its nuclear arsenal. “The most important thing that he has achieved is the overall tone he has set, backed up with deliberate actions to move us closer to the twin goals of nuclear disarmament and robust non-proliferation,” says Jacqueline Shire, a senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank. “Given that together the United States and Russia possess more than 95 per cent of the nuclear weapons in the world, it was a very symbolic milestone.”

Beyond mere symbolism, Obama also reached an agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in July to reduce their stocks of strategic nuclear weapons by about one-third—and both countries are working toward a bilateral agreement to replace the Cold War-era START treaty, which expires in December. Then, in September, Obama pushed through a United Nations Security Council resolution to strengthen non-proliferation rules, improve security of so-called “loose nukes” and nuclear material, and make it more difficult to turn peaceful nuclear programs into weapons. “The bottom line is that in 10 months he has done more to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament and strengthen non-proliferation, the twin pillars of the system, than the Bush administration did in eight years. It’s an impressive start,” says Shire.

During the nuclear debate, Obama became the first U.S. President to sit as chairman of the Security Council, a move calculated to boost the group’s authority and to signal American confidence in the institution. The Nobel committee also commended him for efforts to strengthen international institutions: “Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.” The Obama administration has also been committed to a diplomatic approach with Iran. But it has failed to secure Russian and Chinese support for tougher sanctions against Iran, and it remains unclear whether that approach will bear any fruit or whether it simply buys the regime in Tehran more time to continue on its path to uranium enrichment.

Likewise, on the issue of climate change, Obama has made only a start—albeit an impressive one. “Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the U.S.A. is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting,” states the Nobel citation. His biggest concrete accomplishment has been to broker an agreement between states, federal agencies and the automakers on new, tougher standards on fuel economy and tailpipe emissions for all vehicles sold in the U.S. The new standards would cut greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and light trucks 30 per cent by 2016. “This is the single biggest step the United States has ever taken to reduce oil consumption and emissions,” says Aaron Huertas, spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental non-profit organization based in Cambridge, Mass.

But the big test lies ahead. Obama has elevated climate change legislation to a top priority, and has been prodding a deeply conflicted Congress to pass legislation imposing a mandatory cap on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions before the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December. The likelihood of Congress passing the “cap and trade” bill that Obama wants in time for the international negotiations is viewed as low—primarily due to opposition from Republicans in the Senate. But over the weekend, the prospects for progress brightened as two influential senators, John Kerry, the Democrat from Massachusetts, and Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, announced the basis of a bipartisan approach that they said could draw the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

Their proposal would include a cap and trade approach (capping total emissions, then allowing businesses to trade or sell their own allotments to other firms), encouraging the construction of new nuclear plants, big government investments in carbon capture and sequestration technologies to reduce the emissions from coal-burning plants, and border tariffs on goods from countries with lower environmental standards. Given that the House of Representatives has already passed a climate change bill, and that Obama has pledged to use the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate major polluters if the Senate does not act, there is hope for a breakthrough. “That sort of progress is completely unprecedented,” says Huertas. But other countries are rightly skeptical of talk and good intentions from a country that produces one-quarter of world emissions. After all, Bill Clinton backed the Kyoto Protocol but never got it through the Senate. “The rest of the world needs to be able to see something concrete to be able to agree to an effective deal,” says Huertas.

On human rights, there has been a lot of high-minded talk from Obama. But the Nobel committee rightfully made a point of addressing the President’s contributions only in the future tense: “Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.” Obama’s record so far is a mixed bag. Critics in the human rights community say that there have been few changes since the final years of the Bush administration. Obama has pledged strict adherence to anti-torture rules and said he will close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, but has not resolved what to do with the detainees, and it is increasingly likely he will miss his self-imposed deadline of January 2010. Meanwhile, he has continued to hold prisoners at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan without legal rights, and has maintained the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program of transferring prisoners to foreign governments.

Of course, there have been other cases where the committee rewarded people for unfinished work. The last sitting U.S. president to receive the prize, Woodrow Wilson, was given the prize in 1919 for launching the ill-fated League of Nations—a group the United States never joined because the Senate refused to approve the treaty. Likewise, in 1994, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, foreign minister Shimon Peres, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat received the prize, but peace in the Middle East remains as elusive as ever.

Obama said he was humbled by the award and considered it merely a “call to action.” His secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said the award was a broad endorsement of the administration’s approach to American power and leadership—of Obama’s “attitude toward America’s role in the world, his willingness to challenge everyone to kind of step up and take responsibility.” She said the prize “really restores an image and an appreciation of our country.” Obama’s conservative critics said he was being honoured for muzzling American power. Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice-president, called the award “a farce.” “What the committee believes is, they’d like to live in a world in which America’s not dominant,” she said.

Some critics feared that the prize for peace, which comes as Obama continues to fight two wars and is contemplating the possibility of deploying as many as 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, was a European gambit to pressure the President to scale down the war. Clinton said last weekend that Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize won’t influence “some of these tough decisions” he has to make about Afghanistan. Meanwhile, back home, where the economy continues to limp, and millions of Americans are out of work or afraid of losing their jobs, many voters would be thrilled to see Obama spending the rest of his term working hard to earn another Nobel Prize—this time the one in economics.

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