Why Did Barack Obama Receive the Nobel Peace Prize? My Theories and Your Vote
Today it was announced that Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. One cannot fully understand the reason for any Nobel peace award until December 10 (Nobel’s birthday), when the Laureate makes an acceptance speech and the head of the Nobel Committee explains their thinking in conferring the award. The official announcement alludes to the new climate that he has created in international politics. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”
I think there are four possible interpretations of this award: (1) his achievements as President; (2) to promote global democracy; (3) as the culmination of the civil rights movement; or (4) as a symbol of the spirit of internationalism. Only the first theory is about Obama himself. The other three focus on Obama the symbol.
The first theory honors Obama for his own achievements as President. Three previous Presidents were awarded the prize for this reason: Theodore Roosevelt (1906) for brokering peace between Japan and Russia; Woodrow Wilson (1919) for his work as the principal architect of the League of Nations; and Jimmy Carter (2002) for his work in promoting peace, human rights and democracy. Roosevelt and Wilson won the award near the end of their terms of office, and Carter won it as a lifetime achievement award. It seems highly unlikely that Obama won the award based on the work he has achieved in his first 8½ months in office. In other words, the prize was not given to Obama for what he has done as President. The fact that the deadline for nominating Obama was February 1–eleven days after he took office–and that they decided to give it to him in his first year in office only underscores this point.
Another theory focuses on democracy, a factor expressly mentioned in the announcement. The Nobel Prize has been given to promote democracy with great frequency since the end of the Cold War. Among the Laureates in this category are Lech Walesa (1983), the Dalai Lama (1989), Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), Nelson Mandel and F.W. de Klerk (1993), and Kim Dae-jung (2000). When I was in Africa this past March, I spoke to numerous people about the election of Obama. They were all thrilled and I repeatedly heard the same message: “We now know that American democracy is real. We never thought that your country would elect someone like him.” Under this theory, the award is not about Obama, it’s about what he represents. It’s about the American people and their willingness to elect a minority candidate who came from nowhere to achieve the highest office in the world. It’s about our democratic system of government allowing it to happen at all.
A third theory is that the award is really about the arc of the civil rights movement and the struggle for racial equality. The election of Obama represents the culmination of a dream that many thought could never happen. The Nobel Committee has focused on this issue for decades, beginning in 1960 with the award to the South African tribal chief Albert Lutuli, then again with awards to the likes of Martin Luther King (1964), Desmond Tutu (1984), and Nelson Mandela (1993). As Mandela put it in his great Inaugural Address, “the time for healing of wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us. We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation.” On this theory, the award is not about Obama, but what he represents as the crowning achievement of the struggle for racial equality.
The fourth theory is the one that appears most central in the Nobel Committee’s announcement. It is about the spirit of internationalism. The Committee emphasized his commitment to multilateral diplomacy and international institutions. The Nobel Committee has repeatedly focused on internationalism throughout its history. There are too many Laureates to mention, but among them are (1) those who worked to create the League of Nations—including Woodrow Wilson (1919), Léon Bourgeois (1920) and Robert Cecil (1937); (2) those who promoted the spirit of Locarno and the Kellogg-Briand pact—including Austen Chamberlain (1925), Gustav Stresemann (1926), Aristide Briand (1926) and Frank Kellogg (1929); (3) those who promoted or served with the United Nations—including Cordell Hull (1945), Ralph Bunche (1950), Dag Hammarskjöld (1961), the UNHCR (1954, 1981), Kofi Annan (2001) and Mohamed El Baradei (2005); and (4) those who generally promoted a spirit of internationalism through word or deed, a category that includes over a dozen laureates, including Bertha von Suttner (1905), Jane Addams (1931), Albert Schweitzer (1952), Georges Marshall (1953), Willy Brandt (1971), and Jimmy Carter (2002). Obama’s approach—particularly when juxtaposed with the Bush Administration—reflects a return to a spirit of internationalism that has been a hallmark of the United States for much of its history and that has always featured prominently in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. Again, on this theory it’s not about Obama, but what he represents as one who is committed to internationalism.
Those are my best guesses as to why Obama won the award. Which one do you think is the most likely reason that Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize? Vote now: