Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mr Obama's Nobel Prize

There is much global debate, as the Nobel Peace Committee would have expected, over its award of this year's Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama, a mere nine months into office and with the nominations having closed only weeks of Mr Obama formally taking up the job.

Beyond the uncharitable nastiness of the responses of some of Mr Obama's virulent critics on the American right, who allow political partisanship to trump decency and goodwill, there are those, even among the president's supporters, who argue, with cogency and legitimacy, that the prize may be premature. Mr Obama, it is felt, does not as yet have concrete achievements in any of his initiatives towards a sustainable global peace.

This newspaper is not hostile to those who hold such a position, but appreciates the decision by the Nobel Peace Committee on two fronts: first, as a repudiation of the Bush doctrine of America's iron-fisted, unilateralist exertion of its power and second, and more important, an investment in the promise of Barack Obama. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the Nobel Committee to use the prestige of the Peace Prize to bring attention and impetus to important issues, as was the case with its award to the former US vice president for his efforts in combating global warming.

In fact, the Nobel Committee signalled as much in its citation. Not only did it note the US president's "extraordinary effort to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples", but his place as an inspirational figure.

"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," the committee said.

rekindling hope

And therein lies the substance of the award: the rekindling of hope, and for a world beyond a single polity.

Perhaps the most critical factor so far in the debate is Mr Obama's apparent appreciation of the intent of the Nobel Prize: as the world's downpayment on his leadership of an America reintegrated into a world of multilateralism, where its might is best displayed by its power of persuasion and the correctness of its values rather than swagger of its gait or the show of its "iron".

"I do not view it (the Nobel Peace Prize) as a recognition of my own accomplishments," Mr Obama said, "but rather, an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations."

This is where Mr Obama's job becomes difficult - the need to balance global responsibilities against the contending arguments of domestic political constituents, including a substantial minority, who views as effete and weak the administration's emerging foreign policy of broader international engagement.

In this regard, Mr Obama may find in the Nobel Prize, and the legitimacy it affords, a fillip for the initiatives that he has promoted, not least being a just peace in the Middle East, including a viable Palestinian state.

He may find it easier to pursue nuclear non-proliferation, without undermining the rights of perceived enemies to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, while at the same time finding a credible formula for ending America's conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan without weakening US security.

And as he does these things, he has to set right America's wobbling economy. For around the corner will be the critics who will claim that Mr Obama's response is to the wrong constituency.

October 11, 2009