Obama’s Nobel Prize

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I find the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama rather perplexing, given the short list of actual accomplishments with which it could be justified. He has spoken about nuclear disarmament and a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, as well as of reaching out to states like Iran and North Korea, but he hasn’t really produced a concrete achievement of a scale that justifies the prize. Indeed, he is apparently mulling a major increase in America’s military presence in Afghanistan.

One unlikely but interesting possibility that sprung to mind is a parallel with the Yes, Minister episode: “The Middle Class Rip Off.” When the civil servants want to stop Jim Hacker from selling an art gallery in order to save a financially troubled football team, they appoint him cabinet minister for the arts. Afterward, it is too embarrassing for him to go through with his original plan. There may be the slightest possibility that the Nobel people were trying to avert a war with Iran by a similar means, as tensions there continue to ratchet.

Even if Obama’s credentials for the prize seem a bit scanty now, there is some hope that it will drive him to achieve more in the remaining years of his presidency. In particular, I hope it renews the energy of this administration where it comes to driving climate change legislation through Congress, as well as building a strong consensus for action at Copenhagen. After all, in the long run climate change is a massive threat to international peace and security.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

52 thoughts on “Obama’s Nobel Prize”

  1. Reminds me of The Simpsons:

    Sideshow Bob: “Attempted murder, really, what is that? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry?”

    Chemistry, no. Peace, perhaps.

  2. Still, the major reason why Obama has achieved so little is because he is blocked by Republicans and wavering members of his own party. In a way, he is a better president than the American political system can handle.

  3. Will Nobel Prize also take Obama to Copenhagen climate talks?

    The surprise award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama just nine months into his presidency on Friday may put pressure on him to visit a 190-nation meeting on a new U.N. climate treaty in Copenhagen.

    Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize in part because “the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting.” Looks like he’ll be going to Copenhagen after all!

    October 9, 2009

  4. Barack Obama and the Nobel peace prize
    Even greater expectations

    Oct 9th 2009
    From Economist.com
    Is it premature to give Barack Obama the Nobel peace prize, less than a year into his presidency?

    Mr Obama’s aspirations may be laudable, but he has several tough years ahead. The Nobel committee evidently wants to encourage him but it might have been wiser to hold judgment until he has achieved more. In America itself, the decision has already infuriated conservative commentators, ensuring there will be no peace on the home front, at least.

  5. There is certainly a case to be made for declining the prize, saying that he has not yet accomplished enough to justify it. As John Dickerson writes:

    One debate will be whether Obama should turn down the prize, as Slate’s Mickey Kaus suggests. That would be a slap to the committee, but since awards are being given for atmospherics, let’s consider the atmospherics of such a move. Obama could easily write the justifying language: He’s honored and humbled but he has merely articulated the common aspirations of all mankind. As it is mankind’s global challenge, no one man can claim a prize with so much work left to be done. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. (Ben Rhodes and Jon Favreau could certainly find the language.)

    In the quarters where his speechmaking and diplomatic flair are praised, such a performance will only enhance his reputation. His critics will be dumbfounded. The arrogance rap will fade. Obama would immediately become the favorite for next year’s Nobel Prize for Humility.

    The most interesting consequence of all of this will be the domestic impact. Will it help advance Obama’s agenda, at a time when it has been getting bogged down? Or will it make American politics even more rancorous and dysfunctional.

  6. The Globe’s European correspondent will debate the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to U.S. President Barack Obama with readers starting at 11 a.m. ET.

    Accordind to Mr. Saunders, it is impossible to fully comprehend the impact Mr. Obama has had in Europe, where the Nobel is awarded, coming from the current North American mindset.

    “In North America we’re so obsessed with Afghanistan/Pakistan and the Middle East that we don’t notice the things that get Europeans excited” explains Mr. Saunders.

    Total nuclear disarmament and the shift to multilateralism and to engagement rather than confrontation with the Muslim world resonate loudly to Europeans.

    “When people to the east say “Obama agenda,” they’re talking about those things, which we don’t even really notice,” he says.

  7. Obama accepts Nobel Peace Prize as ‘a call to action’

    Paul Koring
    Washington — Globe and Mail Update Published on Friday, Oct. 09, 2009 5:02AM EDT Last updated on Friday, Oct. 09, 2009 12:22PM EDT

    U.S. President Barack Obama says he plans to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, saying the award is “a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”

    Mr. Obama said he was humbled by the award, and that he feels he doesn’t deserve “to be in the company of so many transformative figures.”

    He indirectly acknowledged criticism that the prize wasn’t given for any particular achievement but for providing “hope for a better future.”

    “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments but as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of the aspirations held by people in all nations,” Mr. Obama said during a press conference at the White House.

  8. Should Obama accept the Nobel peace prize?

    If Obama and his people try to act like the Nobel peace prize was really deserved, he could damage himself politically

    This is so out of nowhere that it could be almost embarrassing for the White House. If Obama and his people try to act like this was really deserved, he could actually damage himself politically.

    If I were in the boiler room over there, I would begin by suggesting to the president that he demur altogether. That he tell the committee that while he’s deeply touched, he does not in fact feel that he has yet done the work to earn this award. He should then recommend to the committee that it give the prize to Hu Jia, the Chinese dissident who was considered a frontrunner, or someone else whose life’s cause could actually benefit from winning the prize (and the hefty cash award that comes with it, which Obama also doesn’t need).

    That would be the best path. Second best would be to accept it but with strings and conditions. First and foremost, do not go to Oslo for the ceremony. No doubt the image of Obama in Oslo was on this committee’s mind. But Obama shouldn’t indulge them. For a prize that everyone knows was not earned, he should not show up and collect.

  9. I think this could be an inspired choice.

    Only one Canadian individual (Lester Pearson) has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was in 1957 in relation to resolution of the Suez conflict.

    I believe that many Canadians were proud of Pearson and that example served to inspire many of us to support Canada’s peacekeeping efforts abroad.

    More than any other people, Americans and American organizations have been awarded more Nobel Peace Prizes more than any other people. On my rough count 23 of the 123 Nobel Peace Prize recepients since 1901 have been either Americans or American organizations. The last (and maybe only ) sitting President was Woodrow Wilson.

    My hope is that the award to Obama which he ackowledges is not for a particular achievement but rather a hope for a better future, may increase the American sense of pride in Obama. This could translate in providing Obama more support for his efforts both at home and abroad.

    I see this as an inspired choice.

  10. The last (and maybe only ) sitting President was Woodrow Wilson.

    They were also awarded to Jimmy Carter and Teddy Roosevelt, though I don’t know whether it was when they were actually president. A list of all the winners is on the Guardian website.

    Didn’t Pearson get his prize before being Canada’s PM?

  11. Roosevelt won while president, for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

    Pearson did get the prize before becoming PM.

  12. This was a surprise to me to read, as I didn’t know he was even under consideration. I like him to the extent that I can like any politician, but a president in his first year, with few accomplishments domestically or internationally isn’t, in my mind, deserving.

    I thought Gore was a good choice (better than the Bono alternative), and I think Obama is the type of man that could go on to do good things deserving of the prize. However, he hasn’t done them yet.

  13. “Rarely has an award had such an obvious political and partisan intent. It was clearly seen by the Norwegian Nobel committee as a way of expressing European gratitude for an end to the Bush Administration, approval for the election of America’s first black president and hope that Washington will honour its promise to re-engage with the world.

    Instead, the prize risks looking preposterous in its claims, patronising in its intentions and demeaning in its attempt to build up a man who has barely begun his period in office, let alone achieved any tangible outcome for peace.

  14. “that could have been better spent if the financial system could have refrained from exploding itself.”

    Are you opposed to the financialization of the economy then?

  15. Who Cares Who Won the Nobel Peace Prize?
    We pay far too much attention to the views of five obscure Norwegians.
    By Anne Applebaum
    Posted Friday, Oct. 9, 2009, at 5:59 PM ET

    Why did they give it to him? Does he deserve it? Should he have accepted it? Who should have gotten it instead? What would he say? The nation is speaking of nothing but President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. Here is a better question for us to ask ourselves: Why should we care?

    The Audacity of $1.4 Million
    What will President Obama do with his Nobel winnings?
    By Juliet Lapidos
    Posted Friday, Oct. 9, 2009, at 4:23 PM ET

    The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to Barack Obama Friday morning. During a brief speech shortly thereafter, the president said he would “accept this award as a call to action” but ignored a question shouted from the crowd on how he would spend the $1.4 million in prize money. On Friday afternoon, the White House announced that the new laureate will donate the entire amount to charity. How, exactly, might the president go about doing this?

    Nobel Rationale
    Why did Obama win the Nobel? Since the committee didn’t really say, he can.
    By Christopher Beam
    Posted Friday, Oct. 9, 2009, at 2:47 PM ET

    Say what you want about whether President Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech in the Rose Garden was an effective combination of humility—”I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments”—and political savvy. From now on, everything he does will have the stamp, however indirect, of the world’s most prestigious prize.

  16. Anne Applebaum writes

    “We pay far too much attention to the views of five obscure Norwegians.
    By Anne Applebaum

    Why did they give it to him? Does he deserve it? Should he have accepted it? Who should have gotten it instead? What would he say? The nation is speaking of nothing but President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. Here is a better question for us to ask ourselves: Why should we care?”


    If the purpose of the 5 Norwegians on the Committee was to honour the pursuit of peace , they have done so if “(t)he (American) nation is speaking of nothing but President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.”

  17. If creating controversy is a sufficient reason to give someone the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps they should have given it to Dick Cheney. If they had, the level of public and media interest in the US would be even higher.

  18. David Axelrod spoke:

    “I’d like to believe that winning the Nobel Peace Prize is not a political liability,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “But this isn’t something I gave a moment of thought to until today. Hopefully people will receive it with some sense of pride. But I don’t know; it’s uncharted waters.”

  19. President Bush, a Youtube Retrospective and his Nobel Prize Winning Successor
    October 10, 2009

    No, I would never make a Youtube retrospective of George Bush. Least of all because I don’t know how to do it. Anyways, this morning as I sipped my cold coffee I got trapped in an endless parade of Youtube bloopery. Naturally, following the crooked path of recorded television bloopers immortalized by the internet, I ran across a George W. Bush blooper reel.

    In retrospect, when he is not sitting in one of the most powerful positions on the planet, the man is not terrifying at all. He’s charmingly inept. Watching him struggle with a Southern aphorism: “fool me don’t get fooled again”, or asking America with consternation: “Is our children learning?” is almost pleasurable now. During his presidency, my reaction was a mixture of deep horror and cynicism. We have Obama now. The idea makes my toes curl.

  20. This is my favourite Bush moment.

    And I think your opinions on the financial crisis are outdated, Milan. It’s pretty clear, at this point, that Obama is just as owned by the banks as other Democrats are, and totally unwilling to reform the financial sector. Here we are, a year later, with nothing accomplished. See this Moyers ep.

  21. Regarding Obama and the banks, it is hard to know how willing he would be to really change things up, and how much he is disinclined to do so based on how difficult it would be.

    Hopefully, we will get some unusually honest memoirs once his presidency is over.


    By George Friedman

    U.S. President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize last week. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, established the prize, which was to be awarded to the person who has accomplished “the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the promotion of peace congresses.” The mechanism for awarding the peace prize is very different from the other Nobel categories. Academic bodies, such as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, decide who wins the other prizes. Alfred Nobel’s will stated, however, that a committee of five selected by the Norwegian legislature, or Storting, should award the peace prize.

    Two things must be remembered about the Nobel Peace Prize. The first is that Nobel was never clear about his intentions for it. The second is his decision to have it awarded by politicians from — and we hope the Norwegians will accept our advance apologies — a marginal country relative to the international system. This is not meant as a criticism of Norway, a country we have enjoyed in the past, but the Norwegians sometimes have an idiosyncratic way of viewing the world.

    The Norwegian politicians gave their prize to Obama because they believed that he would leave Europeans in their comfortable prosperity without making unreasonable demands. That is their definition of peace, and Obama seemed to promise that. The Norwegians on the prize committee seem unaware of the course U.S.-German relations have taken, or of Afghanistan and Iran. Alternatively, perhaps they believe Obama can navigate those waters without resorting to war. In that case, it is difficult to imagine what they make of the recent talks with Iran or planning on Afghanistan.

    The Norwegians awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the president of their dreams, not the president who is dealing with Iran and Afghanistan. Obama is not a free actor. He is trapped by the reality he has found himself in, and that reality will push him far away from the Norwegian fantasy. In the end, the United States is the United States — and that is Europe’s nightmare, because the United States is not obsessed with maintaining Europe’s comfortable prosperity. The United States cannot afford to be, and in the end, neither can President Obama, Nobel Peace Prize or not.

  23. @ .

    An interesting analysis in the Stratfor article extensively quoted above. Obviously I don’t agree with all the conclusions and I’m very cautious about the supposedly homogenous (western) ‘Europeans’ he assumes. I’m uncertain whether this is an attempt to personify the spirit of the sector / each of its nations or a reference to politically powerful Europeans. The article neatly refers specifically to the political class at first then that distinction of focus seems to be lost.

    It is entirely possible that the analysis may be valid for the majority within the elevated world of diplomacy/influence Strategic Studies concerns itself with.

  24. It is too early to laud Obama – or to be disappointed

    Published: October 11 2009 16:57 | Last updated: October 11 2009 16:57

    “Mr Obama was always going to struggle to gratify the hopes that got him elected. He knows this better than anybody. In office, a key task was to temper expectations, face uncomfortable facts and bring the country to a more sober understanding of its choices. This is not going well and the Nobel committee’s declaration of love has made it all a little harder.

    In fact, the president’s wisest course, as the commentator Mickey Kaus observed, was to have turned the prize down, saying he had not had time to accomplish the things he wanted to. Accepting the world’s praise for having done nothing looks vain and is not without risk. The president could have turned the embarrassment to his advantage but has let the opportunity pass. He said he would accept the award as “a call to action” and was deeply humbled by the panel’s choice. Yes, thinks much of America, he still has plenty to be humble about.”

  25. the Stratfor article extensively quoted above

    I quote extensively because hardly anyone ever follows the links, especially for STRATFOR articles that require the extra hurdle of providing an email address.

  26. Nobel jury speaks out in defense of Obama prize


    OSLO — One judge noted with surprise that President Barack Obama “didn’t look particularly happy” at being named the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Another marveled at how critics could be so patronizing.

    In a rare public defense of a process normally shrouded in secrecy, four of the Nobel jury’s five judges spoke out this week about a selection they said was both merited and unanimous.

    To those who say a Nobel is too much too soon in Obama’s young presidency, “We simply disagree … He got the prize for what he has done,” committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland told The Associated Press by telephone from Strasbourg, France, where he was attending meetings of the Council of Europe.

    Jagland singled out Obama’s efforts to heal the divide between the West and the Muslim world and scale down a Bush-era proposal for an anti-missile shield in Europe.

  27. Op-Ed Columnist
    Heckuva Job, Barack

    Published: October 11, 2009

    This was Barack Obama’s chance.

    Here was an opportunity to cut himself free, in a stroke, from the baggage that’s weighed his presidency down — the implausible expectations, the utopian dreams, the messianic hoo-ha.

    Here was a place to draw a clean line between himself and all the overzealous Obamaphiles, at home and abroad, who poured their post-Christian, post-Marxist yearnings into the vessel of his 2008 campaign.

    Here was a chance to establish himself, definitively, as an American president — too self-confident to accept an unearned accolade, and too instinctively democratic to go along with European humbug.

    He didn’t take it. Instead, he took the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Big mistake.

    People have argued that you can’t turn down a Nobel. Please. Of course you can. Obama is a gifted rhetorician with world-class speechwriters. All he would have needed was a simple, graceful statement emphasizing the impossibility of accepting such an honor during his first year in office, with America’s armed forces still deep in two unfinished wars.

  28. Obama’s speech saying he would accept the prize did go a long way towards declining it, as far as it applies to himself personally deserving it.

    He will probably argue that line further at the actual acceptance ceremony.

    Still, it would have been classy and appropriate to say that some specific human rights campaigner was a more deserving candidate than he was, especially given how early in his presidency nominations closed.

  29. An Unconstitutional Nobel

    By Ronald D. Rotunda and J. Peter Pham
    Friday, October 16, 2009

    People can, and undoubtedly will, argue for some time about whether President Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, though, there’s a simpler and more immediate question: Does the Constitution allow him to accept the award?

    Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution, the emolument clause, clearly stipulates: “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.”

    The award of the peace prize to a sitting president is not unprecedented. But Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson received the honor for their past actions: Roosevelt’s efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War, and Wilson’s work in establishing the League of Nations. Obama’s award is different. It is intended to affect future action. As a member of the Nobel Committee explained, the prize should encourage Obama to meet his goal of nuclear disarmament. It raises important legal questions for the second time in less than 10 months — questions not discussed, much less adequately addressed anywhere else.

  30. He will probably argue that line further at the actual acceptance ceremony.

    I hope so. I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that he has already done enough to deserve it.

  31. Obama defends war as he picks up Nobel Peace Prize

    President Barack Obama has said the US must uphold moral standards when waging wars that are necessary and justified, as he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize.

    In his speech in Oslo, he defended the US role in Afghanistan, arguing the use of force could bring lasting peace.

    He also said his accomplishments were slight compared with other laureates.

    Mr Obama was given the prize in October for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”.

    Thursday’s ceremony in the Norwegian capital came days after Mr Obama announced he was sending 30,000 extra US soldiers to the war in Afghanistan.

  32. Obama’s non-pacifist speech appropriately highlights the important distinction between those who wage war in a manner constrained (to some significant extent) by rules and laws, and those who do not.

    Of course, those on the weaker side of any conflict will always have more reason to fight in illegal or unprincipled ways.

  33. True enough. The question of how to behave ethically during wars between very mis-matched opponents is a difficult and unresolved one.

  34. Pingback: Obama and just war
  35. From the Guardian’s “WikiLeaks is holding US global power to account”
    by Seumas Milne:

    “…it is the relentless US mobilisation against Iran that provides the most ominous thread in the leaked despatches. The reports that the king of Saudi Arabia has called on the US to “cut off the head of the snake” and launch what would be a catastrophic attack on Tehran, echoed by his fellow potentates in Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain – and, of course, most dangerously by Israel – were yesterday hailed by the Times as evidence of a new “international consensus” against Iran.

    It is nothing of the sort. It simply underlines the fact that after more than half a century the US still has to rely on laughably unrepresentative autocracies and dictatorships to shore up its domination of the Middle East and its resources. While Arab emirs and election-rigging presidents fear the influence of Iran and only wearily bring themselves to raise the Palestinians with their imperial sponsors, their people regard Israel and the US itself as the threats to their security and strongly support Iran’s nuclear programme – as the most recent US-conducted poll in the region demonstrated.”


  36. One of Obama’s first post-election declarations was the intent to close down Guantanamo. Two years later not only is the base not closed, but prosecutions are continuing and plans for more inmates are afoot.

    I have held on to the belief that awarding the Peace Prize to Obama was an inspired choice and hope for Obama’s ability to effect peace during his Presidency. Unfortunately those hopes are fading.

  37. This seems like an appropriate time to revisit this topic. With Obama beating the war drum, and with 4 years of hindsight, it’s clear his peace prize is nothing but a joke.

    Is it too late to strip it from him and give it to Snowden and Manning?

  38. Manning and Snowden may not have made the world more peaceful, really. It’s good to know what governments are doing (data mining), etc, but it seems a stretch to say leaks like these increase international stability.

  39. From Wikipedia:

    According to Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize shall be awarded to the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

    So, with that in mind, I agree Snowden and Manning aren’t ideal candidates. But certainly Obama promoting war goes somewhat against the general idea of the peace prize.

    You could argue, though, that Snowden, by exposing spying between countries, is in a way promoting fraternity amongst them. I don’t think Manning’s leak of large quantities of random military data was as selflessly motivated as Snowden’s surigically precise and delibrate leak. But he too may have done something for peace by helping to make the public wary of war.

  40. What do you think about the response to the Snowden / Manning leaks so far? Do you think it has led to genuine questioning of U.S. policy domestically? Or does it just mean the U.S. intelligence architecture will become more compartmentalized, and more effort will be directed toward identifying and stymieing potential leakers?

  41. Does this blog have a style guide? If I could edit I’d amend my pronoun for Manning to “she.”

    I think Obama’s response to Snowden which included removal of reference to whistleblower protections from change.gov and labelling Snowden a spy (despite the fact he by definition is not a spy) is disgusting.

    The public’s response hasn’t been harsh enough. Typical apathy I guess. I think people generally have come away feeling negatively towards the government.

  42. One of the paradoxes of power is how the limits upon it that looked appealing before you had it take on a different colour once you have attained it. Given all his rhetoric, Obama is particularly vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy in matters like adherence to international and U.S. domestic law.

    As far as the public reaction goes, the limited response to the NSA revelations is especially worrisome. The architects of the U.S. surveillance state may not be wrong to think that only a few outspoken critics will really object to what they are doing, while most of the public and most elected representatives will be willing to tacitly consent.

  43. One interesting consequence of these leaks is how they affect public evaluations of conspiracy theories. Arguably, they confirm one – namely, that the U.S. government has established a massive telecommunication surveillance and storage architecture. I say ‘arguably’ here not because there is any doubt that this is true, but because engaged observers knew at least the generalities about this before these leaks.

    More broadly, however, it seems like these leaks mostly rebut conspiracy theories. The diplomatic cables that were released contain some embarrassing items, but nothing to suggest that mainstream views of world politics are badly wrong.

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