An Aspirational Nobel Prize For Obama

  • Share
  • Read Later

As the AP analysis this morning puts it, “But still … ?”

In other words, really? Barack Obama? Nobel Peace Prize? So soon? Nine months? War still going in Iraq? Global Warming legislation bottled in Senate? Iran still defiant? Afghanistan still in need of more U.S. troops?

Well, it may seem shocking to Americans, pleasantly for some, disturbingly for others. But in fact, as Ronald Krebs explained in Foreign Policy, the Peace Prize has often been given for aspirational reasons, for potential achievements in the future as much as actual achievements from the past. This is decidedly different from other Nobel prizes, like literature, economics or medicine.

The Nobel Peace Prize’s aims are expressly political. The Nobel committee seeks to change the world through the prize’s very conferral, and, unlike its fellow prizes, the peace prize goes well beyond recognizing past accomplishments. As Francis Sejersted, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the 1990s, once proudly admitted, “The prize … is not only for past achievement. … The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account [because] … Nobel wanted the prize to have political effects. Awarding a peace prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act.”
It is therefore fair to ask whether the Nobel Peace Prize has changed the world. The committee has insisted that the award works in subtle but perceptible ways to advance the winners’ causes: by raising the profile of organizations and problems, by morally and politically bolstering the forces for peaceful conflict resolution, by attracting international attention to repression, and perhaps ultimately by facilitating pressure for liberalization.

Krebs goes on to explain that the Peace Prize aspirations are often unfulfilled.

But the 27 aspirational prizes awarded since 1971 have accomplished far less than the peace prize’s advocates would have us believe. In many of these cases, the media glare was already intense. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the prize had much of an effect on international media coverage of South Africa’s transition from apartheid (1993), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (1994), or the troubles in Northern Ireland (1998).

In cases in which the media was not already saturated, there have been some legitimate successes — notably Aung San Suu Kyi, whose 1991 award seems to have drawn attention to the Burmese predicament. But a survey of headlines in LexisNexis’s database of “major worldwide newspapers” reveals little evidence that the Nobel Peace Prize has typically boosted international media coverage beyond the short run. I found this to be true of the Dalai Lama and Tibet (1989), Rigoberta Menchú and the Guatemalan Civil War (1992), and Shirin Ebadi and reform in Iran (2003), among others. Although the award can boost the personal prominence of individuals with low global media profiles (such as Ebadi or 2004 winner Wangari Maathai), their causes nevertheless seem to continue to languish.

In point of fact, it is too soon to know how Obama’s prize will be eventually judged by history. As much as a celebration, this prize is another platform, and another responsibility, for Obama to use in the years to come. Hard to believe that the expectations could have gone any higher.