In the first year of his presidency, in the midst of two wars, and on the brink of a decision about whether to escalate one of them, President Barack Obama has been awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.
Pundits from left to right already have ratcheted up what’s likely to be days of chatter over whether he deserves it. I’ll leave that to the prize’s judges, members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. They chose Obama, they said, for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples…. Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics.”
Their message seems clear. Vision matters. Tone matters. International engagement matters.
It’s a message, I suspect, meant to be delivered to all corners of the world’s community, to Iran and Pakistan, to Israel and the Palestinians, to Russia and to American politicians of both parties. As imperfect and inexperienced as he is, the committee seems to suggest, Barack Obama may be the world’s best chance to change the bitter and bellicose tone that has marked and marred international relations, the best person to once again pull the world back from the nuclear precipice.
In accepting the award, Obama’s actions reflected the surprise and humility of which he spoke. He seemed almost subdued in delivering prepared remarks. He took no questions.
“Let me be clear,” he said. “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 entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.”
Ultimately, however, what matters most is not whether the president or his domestic supporters or critics believe he has earned the peace prize. What matters most is what, if anything, the award will mean on the stage of international diplomacy and international relations.
Will it help break a seemingly intractable logjam in Middle East negotiations? Will it help lead Iran to truly engage in talks that could trade a future of nuclear bombs or invasion for a present of international recognition, aid and legitimacy? Will it influence this president’s evolving relationship with Russia or factor into his public struggle to make the right decision on troop levels in Afghanistan?
I’m not naïve. Recognition of this sort will not keep terrorists from being terrorists nor crazies from being crazy. It could, however, catch the attention of reasonable people overseas cowed by the terrorists’ bombs and reasonable people at home confused by the cacaphony of the crazies’ claims.
It might slow the growing groundswell of mockery, from the comic but pointed barbs of a Saturday Night Live skit to the frothing frenzy of the far right, that Barack Obama is a big talk, no action president.
Barack Obama and this country have enormous and unenviable challenges ahead – in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Pakistan, on health care and the economy, education and the environment. What the Nobel committee seemed to be saying today in awarding him its Peace Prize is that in their minds he is the right man at the right time, a man the public should listen to closely, not mock mercilessly.
In our world of 24-7 noise, the efforts to define this American president are unrelenting. That won’t change. But now, if nothing else, one definition of Barack Obama will stand in stark contrast to the haters’ inherently self-contradictory litany, which, by its sheer volume, seems over time to draw some leverage.
Let some Americans shriek that the president is a socialist, communist, Hitleresque foreigner; a death-panel-loving control freak; a do-nothing narcissist. Today, in the eye of many across the globe, Barack Obama is someone entirely different: The winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
May that message help begin to shape a better world.