Reaction to American President Barack Obama’s recent Nobel Peace Prize award was as varied and controversial as the list of past recipients itself.
Democrats naturally basked in the glow of their party’s brightest star, but Republican national chairman Michael Steele ridiculed Obama’s award as the “Prize for Awesomeness.”
“It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights,” added Steele.
In the company of past winners such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa and Mother Teresa, it’s fair to ask what has Obama actually done to merit this prize?
He’s certainly a gifted statesman and orator, who has inspired people around the globe with a renewed sense of hope for the future. But is talk of change enough?
Obama was sworn in as President merely two weeks prior to the award’s nomination deadline. He’s only been in office for nine short months.
Some pundits have opined that he deserves the award in an “aspirational context.”
As Francis Sejersted, 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.”
But the current committee is adamant that this is not an aspirational award. Thorbjorn Jagland, former prime minister of Norway and chair of this year’s committee, insists it’s for work Obama has already accomplished, for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples.”
“We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year,” Jagland said, who credited Obama with creating “a new climate in international politics” whereby “multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position” in world affairs.
It all sounds so compelling, until you give your head a good shake.
What has he really contributed to world peace other than a few inspirational speeches?
Martin Luther King, Jr., arguably the greatest American orator of the 20th century, won the peace prize in 1964 for his marches, not his speeches, for his courageous acts throughout the American south, defying police batons, attack dogs, water canons, and assassins. He was a global harbinger of peace, the driving force that ended segregation.
Mahatma Ghandi, the Indian national leader who embodies the strongest symbol of non-violent activism in the 20th century, was nominated for the peace prize in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and finally, a few days before he was murdered in January 1948.
King and Ghandi deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama does not – at least, not yet.
The only other two sitting presidents to win this award did so on the heels of significant international accomplishments.
Theodore Roosevelt brokered a peace deal to end to the Russo-Japanese war, and Woodrow Wilson spearheaded the creation of the League of Nations, the precursor to our modern United Nations.
Given some time, perhaps Obama would likewise have merited the prize outright, based on real achievements his administration now only aspires to, like confronting Iran and North Korea, shoring up Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy, or reducing global terrorism and nuclear weapons.
Columnist for the Jerusalem Post, Shmuley Boteach, summed it up best: “And this is where the real guilt of the Nobel committee lies. They have conveyed the mistaken message that what a man or woman says is as important as what they do. And while we need eloquent words to make us march, until those feet start astompin’, the speeches remain empty rhetoric.”
And the venerable Nobel Peace Prize remains ever-so-slightly more tarnished.
Vesna Higham is a local freelance writer.