Nobody - neither the bookies nor the pundits - saw this coming.
This award strikes many in America as more of an "A for effort" than recognition of significant accomplishments only 9 months into his first term as US President. In making its announcement, the Nobel Foundation offered this insight into its selection of Obama for this award:
"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."
In light of this justification, Obama's speech last month before the UN General Assembly may have helped make up the minds of the Nobel Committee:
"I have been in office for just nine months -- though some days it seems a lot longer. I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world. These expectations are not about me. Rather, they are rooted, I believe, in a discontent with a status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences, and outpaced by our problems. But they are also rooted in hope -- the hope that real change is possible, and the hope that America will be a leader in bringing about such change."
So perhaps Obama received the award for taking American diplomacy in a new direction, and for his willingness to define the tasks that lie ahead as a shared responsibility among all nations. Certainly this passage from his UN address makes that clear:
"Some of our actions have yielded progress. Some have laid the groundwork for progress in the future. But make no mistake: This cannot solely be America's endeavor. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone. We have sought -- in word and deed -- a new era of engagement with the world. And now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."
There is no more symbolic - and political - Nobel award than the Peace Prize. It is by its very nature a validation of ideals.
- It has been granted to those who brokered the end of wars (Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger)
- It has been awarded to those who by their example kept the world's attention on the need to confront injustice and oppression in brutally repressive societies (Aung San Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa).
- It has been given in hope to former adversaries whose previous record was anything but peaceful (Yassir Arafat, F.W. DeKlerk, Anwar Al-Sadat).
- It has recognized those who have dedicated themselves to the alleviation of human suffering (The International Committee of the Red Cross, Mother Teresa, International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Doctors Without Borders).
- And it has been granted to visionaries and organizations who articulate a profoundly different way of dealing with global conflicts and challenges (The Quakers, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its most visible proponent, Al Gore).
I believe that the Nobel Committee selects Peace Prize winners as much to make a statement of ideals as to recognize the saints and successful peacemakers among us. In drawing attention to Barack Obama, it seeks to validate what is still an untried vision, not only for American diplomacy but for international problem-solving and conflict resolution.
It will remain a very controversial award here at home even as it is lauded abroad, not only because of concerns that America's interests will be sublimated to those of other nations but also because it is still very early in his presidency and the success or failure of his vision and governance remains to be seen. There is so much that is symbolic in Obama's presidency and it is too soon for there to be much of substance. We are leery of mythologizing our sitting presidents - one must have been dead for 5 years before his image appears on a postage stamp - and we like to think that America is a meritocracy and that we earn whatever success and recognition we achieve in life rather than having it given to us preferentially. Those who oppose affirmative action may see yet another example of it in this award. Those who are inspired by his presidency will find it affirming. It is certain that partisan politics will see this award as another wedge issue.
I believe that there is hardly a world leader who carries as much symbolism and upon whom so many fix their hopes and aspirations as Barack Obama. A symbolic award for a symbolic Presidency may be quite fitting after all. We can only hope that deeds follow words in the years to come.
More (10/9/2009): President Obama is certainly a class act:
"I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee. Let me be clear; I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people of all nations. To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize: men and women who've inspired me, and inspired the whole world through their courageous pursuit of peace. But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women and all Americans want to build. A world that gives life to our founding documents. And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement, It's also be used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action, a call to all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."