Barack Obama simply doesn't match up to previous Nobel Peace Prize recipients, or indeed many who haven't won the award.
The Nobel Committee has embarrassed itself, patronized Barack Obama, and demeaned the Peace Prize. In choosing activism, it risks setbacks to the pet causes it champions.
There have been other eyebrow-raising laureates: those who waged war (Henry Kissinger, 1973), others tainted with terrorism (Yasser Arafat, 1994), and still others whose contributions to peace were tenuous (planting millions of trees). More Nobel prizes have been awarded for solving the Middle East conflict than any other, yet many more, one suspects, remain to be given in that accursed theatre.
With the award to Obama, the prize crosses the line from dubious or questionable to risible. Premature doesn't even begin to cover it. Gasps of incredulity have alternated with snorts of derision, including among Obama admirers and supporters, who are starting to fret over his compromises on core promises and values. It devalues the work of most previous laureates, turns the prize itself into a joke, provides handy ammunition to Obama's domestic opponents while embarrassing many supporters, and risks making progress on several of his worthwhile initiatives more difficult.
What was already a gap between ambitions-cum-aspirations and accomplishments-cum-achievements is now a chasm. Ironically, Obama was awarded the prize at the very time that, kowtowing to the rising power that must not be offended, he became the first U.S. president in almost two decades to refuse to meet the Dalai Lama (so he will meet with the enemies but not the advocates of freedom?), a worthy previous laureate (1989).
Last year's winner was Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland with three decades of solid effort and achievements across three continents: Africa (Namibia), Asia (Aceh) and Europe (Kosovo). Or consider the very real and tangible accomplishments of someone who did not get the prize, Bill Clinton. As president, he worked -- with uneven success -- in the cause of peace in the Balkans, Haiti, Middle East and Northern Ireland. Since leaving office, he has added to this already impressive list by promoting sundry good and worthy causes through the Clinton Global Initiative.
Some winners, such as Jimmy Carter (2002) and Mohamed Elbaradei (2005), have had their records questioned by members of the U.S. right, who detest the Nobel Peace Prize as reward for anti-Americanism. Now they will be able to cite the 2009 award as proof of the ridicule that the prize richly deserves. The prize -- for yes he can, not yes he did -- vindicates the right wing's contempt for Europe. It follows a TV skit about Obama celebrating a year's worth of non-accomplishments. It will impress no domestic constituency not already favourably disposed to him and may incite sarcasm like "He got the Peace Prize, I got the pink slip."
It recalls John McCain's jab that Obama is the world's biggest celebrity, famous mostly for being famous à la Paris Hilton. The Republican party's national committee chairman, African-American Michael Steele, said Obama had won the prize "for awesomeness;" the premature award showed how meaningless a once honourable and respected award had become. This year's prize will help critics delegitimize future laureates.
"The Democrats and their international leftist allies," Steele added, "want to make America subservient to the agenda of global redistribution and control." Another analyst asked if Sarah Palin can expect a Pulitzer Prize for promising to read a book, some day.
As every commentator has noted, not a single major item on Obama's ambitious global agenda has been implemented. Having talked the talk, he is yet to walk the walk. He is still the commander-in-chief of two major wars, one of which he may expand significantly. He acquiesced in the sacrifice of the U.S. deputy head of the UN mission who wanted to sanction Hamid Karzai for blatant electoral fraud in Afghanistan. Defied by Israel on the settlements -- a euphemism for Jews colonizing still more Arab land -- he has backed off and called on the Palestinian Authority to abandon preconditions instead. He passed up the chance of using the Goldstone report to call out Israel on its Gaza aggression and possible war crimes. He has already deferred the achievement of a nuclear-free world to beyond his lifetime, that is, for another four decades. He has yet to demonstrate results-oriented leadership on climate change. Afghanistan remains unpacified, Iran is on course for nuclearization, North Korea is yet to give up its nuclear arms, and conflicts in Darfur and the Congo continue to tug on the world's conscience.
Obama's rhetoric reinforces U.S. primacy and exceptionalism, albeit for more progressive causes than under his predecessor. Does it profit the world to have America lurch from a nation of self-serving realists who insist on meddling in pursuit of U.S. commercial and geopolitical interests, to a nation of idealists bent on meddling to impose U.S. values?
Obama could have neutralized charges of vanity and shallowness by graciously refusing the award while acknowledging the honour of being chosen. This would have solved his narcissism problem. That he accepted it exposes him to mockery by critics and diminishes him in the eyes of many supporters. It may also reduce his incentive to earn it through results. Afraid of being taunted by the right for pandering to soft-hearted foreigners when his job is to protect vital U.S. interests, he may temporize even more in order to appease neocons who are delighted at having the empty suit jibe validated by the Nobel Committee.
Obama is now free to indulge his passion for rhetorical flourishes to keep the left in line while he becomes more muscular in deeds to win over the right. The Nobel Committee has just enlarged his domestic political space to confront and escalate instead of to engage and defuse. As Ronald Krebs, a scholar of past Nobel peace prizes, put it, "Rather than release his inner dove, the Prize may force him to brandish his public hawk."
The committee, stung by the backlash to the preposterous citation explaining the award, has asked who has done more to deserve the honour in the past year? If they wanted symbolism that is as potent as it is poignant, how about Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who bled to death during post-election protests on the streets of Tehran? Choosing her would have been a fitting tribute to all who have fallen in the cause of democracy, freedom and the dream of a just world. I can think of many other deserving recipients. As John McEnroe might have said, the Nobel Committee "cannot be serious" in claiming that Obama has already attained the nobility of suffering, dedication and contributions to a better world of the likes of Martin Luther King (1964), Nelson Mandela (1993), Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), Elie Wiesel (1986) and Mother Teresa (1979).
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.