Barack Obama’s Presidency is less than a year old, and he has already found himself on the roller coaster ride of American politics, media and celebrity. It must have been a pleasant surprise to wake to the news on October 9th that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. While it will be derided by extremists of both the Right and the Left (probably more by the Right), it is a significant and telling moment for the President and for the United States of America.
For the extreme Left, he’s the President who is still fighting a war in Iraq, an escalating war in Afghanistan, and possibly thinking about taking out Iran’s nuclear capability. For the extreme Right, he’s a foreign born egomaniac who is getting ready to allow gays to serve in the military and planning to cut and run from all American military engagements. However, it is instructive to read the President’s Nobel Prize citation and see how Obama is being perceived abroad:
“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. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the United States is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.”
“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. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population,”
My favorite part of the news stories about the Prize is the way the President was informed of this award. Due to time zone differences, American Nobelists are typically informed of their win in the middle of the night. Not this time. According to Nobel Committee Chair Thorbjoern Jagland , the Committee decided not to inform Obama early because it didn’t want to wake him up. “Waking up a president in the middle of the night, this isn’t really something you do,” Yes, he might think the nation was being attacked.. Deploying the air force would not be the correct response to winning a peace prize.
Of course, Obama is not the first sitting American President to win the Prize. Teddy Roosevelt won in 1916 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919. The move by the Nobel committee serves to reinforce the central position of American diplomacy and the continued importance of the American Presidency. With Europe, China, India, and Russia emerging as world powers, the United States continues to retain its critical position, with the world’s most powerful military and a huge if struggling economy. Of equal importance is America’s central position in the world’s media, on the web and in the popular imagination. Images of America are communicated throughout the world and continue to dominate the world’s collective bandwith.
It matters what the American President does, how he does it and what he says. When President George W. Bush swaggers on to an aircraft carrier to declare “mission accomplished” it says one thing. When President Barack Obama goes to Cairo to hold out an olive branch to the Muslim world, it says something quite different. While being popular outside the United States may not be the main objective of the American President, Machiavelli aside, being feared and loathed is not always the best way to promote American interests in an interdependent global system.
A number of polls this summer show that the United States is more respected abroad than it was during the Bush Administration and it is clear that the Obama team sees diplomacy as well as the military as tools for advancing American interests. Obama is a masterful communicator and a compelling figure on the world stage. While it is too early to know if all of this promise will translate into performance, the Nobel Committee seems to be betting on our still new President. I admit that I am too. Obama has written his own story and termed it the Audacity of Hope. I think the Nobel committee has added its voice to that story- making the case for the persistence of hope. I think it is a wonderful gesture, worthy of the traditions of this important prize.