Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the 1904 Russo-Japanese war, in which 130,000 people died. Woodrow Wilson was similarly rewarded for his role in founding the League of Nations in 1919. Now, Barack Obama has become the third president of the U.S. to be awarded the Nobel peace prize — for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Spot the difference? Roosevelt and Wilson actually did something constructive (or prevented the destructive), but Obama has been applauded for his “efforts” — precisely because he hasn’t actually done anything yet.
Obama is little over 8 months into his presidency, in which time he has not yet closed Guantanamo Bay, has had little impact on the situation in Afghanistan, has not yet acted on climate change, has spoken about nuclear disarmament, and has postured about a peace process for the Middle East. No one would have expected all these commendable plans to have been completed 8 months into a possible 8 year tenure — so why has the Nobel committee decided to reward him now? They claim it is meant as an encouragement, sort of like a Norwegian thumbs-up.
When Alfred Nobel stipulated in his will the conditions of the peace prize bearing his name, he selected the Norwegian government to award the prize because he felt they would be less likely to make politically motivated choices. Unfortunately, Obama’s prize is not so much an encouragement as it is politically motivated. He appears to have won for little more than not being George W. Bush, who, of course, was immensely unpopular internationally. Obama’s nomination for the award actually came only 12 days into his presidency. They clearly cannot be acknowledging accomplishment.
Despite all the optimism about what the Obama presidency symbolizes, Obama’s international agenda is not a principally humanitarian effort. Rather, it is a politically motivated collection of policy. For example, the U.S. could safely reduce its number of nuclear weapons from the current excess of 10,000 without reducing its international might. Some degree of disarmament makes financial and logistical sense but Obama himself acknowledges that disarmament is very unlikely to occur in his lifetime. That makes it easier to preach about how desirable it is as a concept, knowing full well he will not have to force through these ideas. Similarly, closing down Guantanamo was a necessary political move because keeping it open would have further tarnished the U.S.’s image internationally. Obama is surely not the human being who has done the most to promote peace in his lifetime: There were a record 204 other candidates for the award this year.
The Nobel panel knows this, and they must hope that this prize will spur Obama on to pursue his difficult global goals and validate their choice. Of course, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Roosevelt went on to have his image carved into Mount Rushmore. Unlike for his Nobel Prize, Obama will actually have to prove himself before he would even be considered for that particular honor.
Erasmus K. zu Ermgassen is an exchange student from the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge-MIT Exchange program.