Kanishka Narayan, International Relations Society Treasurer
“A stimulus for further endeavour”
I think the decision to award Barack Obama a Nobel peace prize was very much in line with both the founder’s intentions and the past decisions of the awarding committee. A complete dismissal of the decision as premature fails to take into account the nature of the prize.
Barack Obama has only been in office for ten months. He has quite clearly not achieved, in this short space of time, all that he had promised and has certainly not brought about the kind of concrete transformational change that someone like Martin Luther King Jr. had when the prize was bestowed upon him in 1964. But the prize has, since its inception, only partly served as recognition of past achievement and has mostly served as a stimulus for further endeavour. This includes a significant transformation in the mere approach to a major problem, when this creates a great deal of hope for more concrete results.
Such a show of solidarity was used with Henry Kissinger, for example, when he won the Nobel peace prize in 1973 for a ceasefire agreement over Vietnam. Intense fighting continued soon afterwards between the South and the North till 1975, and Kissinger’s record was not unblemished, but the committee wanted to recognised the major turnaround in US attitudes towards conciliation. In Obama’s case, the chairman of the awarding committee said that the award was to recognise the significant and positive change that Obama had brought about in international circles, through “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. The committee are explicit in their aim to enhance and promote Obama’s goals.
Alfred Nobel labelled three main fields in which Nobel peace prize winners must have attained change in the preceding year: “fraternity between nations, reduction in standing armies, holding of peace congresses”. Obama has shown a significant change of approach in all three fields. In the field of diplomacy, Obama has led a US much more open to negotiations (witness his Cairo speech and high-level talks with Iran) and much more respected by nations abroad, transforming perceptions of the US in the minds of those outside it. Regarding disarmament, Obama has moved the US and Russia closer to the ‘reset’ button, advancing the cause of nuclear disarmament like no other president, and in stark contrast to George W Bush. As for institutions, Obama is the one who has called for a “global response to global challenges” and has re-engaged the United Nations, following Bush’s more neglectful approach towards it.
Since the prize is only partly a recognition of achievement and more significantly the affirmation of an individual’s (or group’s) new approach, Obama’s prize is just.
Emily Middleton, Oxford Amnesty President
“The potential to achieve doesn’t merit the prize”
The Nobel prizes are awarded for achievement, right? Wrong. As of last week, they’re awarded for the potential to achieve, combined in Obama’s case with the accomplishment of not being George W Bush. Laudable as that may be, it’s not exactly deserving of one of the most prestigious prizes on the planet.
There’s no doubt that Obama’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and peace in the Middle East is encouraging, as is his executive order to close Guantanamo Bay. Indeed, judges cited Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”. But the reality is, Obama’s efforts in the Middle East are currently going nowhere; disarmament is still a long way off and the notorious Cuban prison camp is still open for business.
Obama himself interpreted the award as a ‘call to action’ – an implicit admission that he hasn’t yet earned the honour. The bottom line is that intentions aren’t enough: just as a brilliant idea for a novel is not deserving of the Nobel prize for literature, Obama’s rhetoric is not enough to warrant the Nobel prize for peace. If it was, at least half of humankind should get a Nobel – after all, most of us would really rather like world peace.
Give it a couple of years, and perhaps tangible progress will have been made on Obama’s key commitments, in which case by all means give him the award. But should we bestow the award upon him after he has been in office for only ten months and has been nominated less than two weeks after being inaugurated?
The most rational explanation is that the Norwegians are losing it. That, or they’re trying to convert the prize into a political catalyst and taking a massive gamble in the process. If Obama ends up making little or no progress on his commitments, or even making things worse, the reputation of the Nobel will be hit and the judges’ prophesying capabilities shown to be seriously flawed.
The golden medal will hang like a millstone around Obama’s neck for the rest of his career. If expectations of the new president weren’t already sky-high, he now has to earn himself the most illustrious peace prize there is, with the whole world watching and waiting.
In the immediate future, the award will give him grief as he struggles to decide whether or not to give a boost to American efforts in Afghanistan by sending more soldiers. Any decision he makes will be heavily criticised in light of his new status as a Nobel laureate: if he sends in more troops, critics will point out the irony of a peace prize winner escalating war; if he fails to send more troops, critics could say he’s not committed to peace in Afghanistan and defeating the Taliban. Either way, he’s in line for an avalanche of condemnation.