Please attempt to name the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Peace.
His name is Martti Ahtisaari, a supremely accomplished diplomat, peacemaker, and former president of Finland. And unless you’re interested in international diplomacy, you’ve probably never heard of him. Whether you think this is a good/bad thing (Ahtisaari’s non-popularity among people not interested in diplomacy) is a separate and interesting question all by itself. But I think it also sheds some light on what might have been going through the heads of the Nobel Selection Committee these past few weeks.
By bringing this up, I don’t mean to question how deserving Mr. Ahtisaari is of his Peace Prize. In fact, I sort of mean to do the opposite. Ahtisaari fits the traditional description of the ideal Peace Prize candidate better than almost anyone else. In terms of concrete, tangible ‘peace output’, he and a fleet of other diplomats, peace advocates, human rights activists and accomplished politicians are magnitudes more deserving than President Obama. So how does the selection committee even consider the 8-month-old US President?
Well, I think the first thing we need to do is look at the concept of ‘deservedness’ and concede that this isn’t really where the debate should end. Almost no one is defending the claim that Obama is most deserving of the Peace Prize – the man himself was among the first to dispel this idea on Friday morning (see his appropriately self-deprecatory-but-at-the-same-time-very-presidential-and-measured-and-perfectly-calibrated reaction speech). And yet most critics are converging– in some cases in a very emotional way – exclusively on the ‘does he deserve it?’ question.
I think we need to realize that the Nobel Committee has chosen to see itself (at least this year) as being as much an identifier of peace as a promoter of it. Unlike last year, the committee has decided that the 2009 prize will (hopefully) do something more than simply make one very accomplished and deserving person very happy (and $1.4m richer). How exactly this prize will promote peace is a complex question, but it’s undeniable that it has something to do with providing America and the world with some perspective.
Few people acknowledge how perilously close the world was to crisis during the previous US presidency. President Bush’s approval ratings in Europe were dismal for almost all of his eight years in office (exempli gratia: Germany and the Netherlands were at 12 and 18 percent in 2008– Obama’s ratings in those countries currently stand at 92 and 90 percent). I don’t think I need to elaborate on US-Middle East relations and how very horribly bad they would have remained had someone like John McCain been elected president. The same goes for relations with Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba, among others.
What Obama has started, then, is what many pundits are calling ‘a movement to integrate America back into the international community’. Except that I don’t think ‘back’ is the right word. ‘Back’ is, in fact, part of the problem. The state of relations Obama is pushing America into, w/r/t the Middle East and the states mentioned above, is one that can potentially be more harmonious and conducive to peace than any we have seen in the last century (see: Cold War, WW II/I, Latin America, imperialism, colonialism, etc.) In other words, I beg to differ with people who describe global Obamamania and the speech the President made last November on election night as being ersatz and superficial.
So how does the Peace Prize help? Well, above all, it draws peoples attention to how far we’ve come, if not just emotionally and attitudinally, and how real the recent reorientation of global politics can potentially be.
Many commentators are also claiming that the prize ‘encourages’ Obama to pursue peace. I would go further and say that it forces the President to think even harder about making his promises a reality. Regardless of how hard it might have been to think about engaging Iran militarily and/or sending 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan before Friday morning, holding a Nobel Peace Prize now makes these decisions that much harder. It might also be fair to say that disengaging from issues like Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, human rights and nuclear non-proliferation after winning a Peace Prize is potentially more embarrassing than doing so without one.
In the end, then, I think that those who (rightly) claim President Obama doesn’t deserve the Nobel are somewhat missing the point. The Nobel Committee has put the integrity and prestige of the Peace Prize on the line in an attempt to encourage and prod forward a trend in global politics that they think will be conducive to world peace. It’s very easy to be cynical about this, and the committee’s actions certainly bring up questions about what exactly Peace Prizes should be used for. I do think, however, that we live in very (and at times frighteningly) precarious times, and that anything that eliminates even a tiny fraction of that precariousness is good news.