I’ve been thinking about Barack Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize quite a bit over the past couple of days and, as excited and hopeful as I am about the Obama administration, it really doesn’t feel entirely right.
Regardless of how you feel about whether he deserves the award I think we would all agree that giving a President only 9 months into his term the world’s foremost career-achievement award makes it only too easy for those that wish to dismiss both the President and the award while leaving many supporters surprised and non-plussed.
It is not hard to make a compelling case that Obama deserves the award according to the criteria outlined in Alfred Nobel’s will:
during the preceding year [...] shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
I believe that Obama’s election, in-and-of-itself, created an extraordinary change in the world’s view of America and America’s understanding of itself. The way he ran his campaign and the ideals he expressed empowered millions of Americans and inspired many millions more around the world to believe another world was possible.
Changes in atmosphere, in tone, in people’s conception of what is possible, constitute real changes which can indicate a deep, cultural shift in a society. Communicating, defining and inspiring are important parts of the president’s role, and a crucial element in what Ron Heifetz calls ‘Adaptive Leadership‘. This is leadership that produces a shift in values and allows society to understand and confront the real issues, in contrast to ‘Technical Leadership’ which is focused on the application of existing knowledge for incremental fixes.
However I still wish the Nobel Committee had waited. There’s no doubt that Obama will be at the center of world events for the entirely of his presidency, and I believe, and we all must hope, that in many of the years ahead he will make more concrete steps towards peace and disarmament, the protection of human rights and real action on climate change than those that have occurred thus far.
However necessary it is to bring about changes in atmosphere and behavior it is insufficient to be considered a great, or even effective, president. For that these changes must be leveraged into legislative and policy progress. And Obama has a lot of work to do to achieve this, and the places where progress has been made are not those most related to peace building but rather domestic concerns, especially the American economy and next, it is hoped, domestic health care.
I am hopeful that over the next year or two Obama will finalize the closing of Guantanamo Bay, withdraw US forces from Iraq and lead the world to an agreement to take meaningful action on climate change (and then get domestic legislation passed to make this action real). I even hope he will find time to focus on pushing for a final Israel/Palestinian peace agreement. Any of these things might justify receiving the Nobel Prize and would make it easier for supporters to unabashedly celebrate the win and harder for critics to dismiss it. And there were certainly other strong candidates from the past year. Morgan Tsvangirai would also have been a deserving winner for instance.
In the end I hope that this Nobel Peace Prize is, as Obama said, “a means to give momentum to a set of causes.” These causes need all the momentum they can get.