By Scott London — October 12, 2009
It’s been a big week here, juggling a thousand projects and, in the midst of it all, getting swept up in the media whirlwind surrounding the announcement of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama. Like many people I was stunned by the news. I certainly agree with the Norwegian Nobel Committee that no one has done more “to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” as the citation put it, and that thanks to President Obama the United States is now playing a more constructive role on a wide range of global fronts, from democracy and human rights to climate change and the reduction of nuclear weapons.
But prizes awarded to statesmen always present certain challenges. There have been about about three dozen such prizes, by my count. The most significant problem is that political leaders who win the prize are being awarded for work they were appointed or elected to do. If the fundamental task of a political leader is to keep the peace, as it were, then they hardly deserve a prize for that.
In his will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the prize should go to individuals who have won some victory for peace during the preceding year. But in the case of statesmen this rules out a longer term perspective, to say nothing of a deeper analysis of documents and other evidence about the underlying motives behind their efforts to solve conflicts and promote peace.
Few of the prizes awarded to statesmen have stood the test of time, in my view. Even the two awards to sitting US presidents (Roosevelt in 1906 and Wilson in 1919) were controversial. Roosevelt was hardly a man of peace, as we know, though he did manage to help bring the Russo-Japanese war to an end. And Wilson’s great achievement, the League of Nations, failed to accomplish what it was supposed to.
That said, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has taken an increasingly broad view of peace in the 21st century, defining it not in the narrow terms Nobel laid out in his will, but as a broad mission that must include work for human rights, environmental sustainability, international tolerance, economic justice, mutual understanding between peoples, and a range of other pressing challenges. From that broader perspective, the prize to Obama certainly makes sense and might yet serve its intended purpose.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has taken a gamble by giving the prize to Obama. It may weigh heavily on him now, especially at home. But in time we make look back on it as one of the best and most obvious of prizes, much as we now look upon the awards to Martin Luther King Jr., Dag Hammarskjöld, Nelson Mandela, and other great figures who were not only exemplary leaders but also champions of human rights, human freedom and human dignity.
For more of my thoughts on the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, check out the links below. I was interviewed for several newspaper stories and also appeared on a number of radio and television programs. I’ll be adding to the list in coming days as the clips are posted online.
- Wall Street Journal: An Award Often Tinged by Politics by Michael M. Phillips and Guy Chazan
- Toronto Star: Nobel Peace Prize Coveted, But Oh So Controversial by Olivia Ward
- Christian Science Monitor: With Elinor Ostrom, Oliver Williamson, US Nearly Sweeps Nobels by Mark Sappenfield
- NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: Examining the Road to Becoming a Nobel Laureate by Jeffrey Brown
- WYPR Public Radio: President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize from Midday with Dan Rodricks