Why Did Barack Obama Receive the Nobel Peace Prize? My Theories and Your Vote

by Roger Alford

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:

Why Did Barack Obama Receive the Nobel Peace Prize?
His Achievements as President
He Symbolizes True Democracy at Work
He Symbolizes the Success of the Struggle for Racial Equality
He Symbolizes the Spirit of Internationalism
Free polls from Pollhost.com


10 Responses

  1. Thanks for this Roger–I’ll offer a contrary possibility, add a fifth potential reason, and observe that the contrary view and fifth reason could be connected. 

    The contrary view is that the Committee may have decided that the President’s achievements in office merited the Prize.  This would be the case if the Committee was inspired by the aspirations President Obama has presented and considers those aspirations to be the most significant contribution to peace in the past year.  For example, if the Committee concluded that the President’s Cairo speech, UN speech, and other statements present a potential achievable framework for greater international cooperation and non-violent resolution of disputes, and that no other figure has done as much to forward the cause of peace,  than the Committee could have given the President the prize for this.

    This is not as dubious as some critics might think.  Discourse matters, and as the examples of many prior Peace laureates demonstrate, laying out a vision that inspires humanitarian action is often a predicate for such action.  That this vision is now coupled with U.S. Presidential power makes it more achievable still.

    The fifth possible reason is that the Committee may be trying to influence the President to make good on his promise. There are elements of the President’s foreign and national security policy as practiced which some might critique as falling short of his words.  There are also, of course, many decisions yet to be made on these matters.  

    Perhaps the committee likes the talk and wants to see the walk.  


  2. Obama’s speech this morning on the news of his selection can be viewed here and a transcript is here.

  3. Charlie,

    I think your fifth theory is valid.  As the Nobel Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland put it today, “We must from time to time go into the realm of realpolitik. It is always a mix of idealism and realpolitik that can change the world.”

    There have been several occasions when the prize has been given to spur negotiations onward, and these have been the most controversial in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize.  The most famous examples in this category are the awards to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973 and the awards to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. 

    With this approach the Nobel Committee is attempting to intervene directly in the process of peace by forcing the hand of the current statesmen to always act in a way that is consistent with the prize.  It is a risky strategy that occasionally has backfired and tarnished the reputation of the prize. 

    One could argue that with Obama receiving the prize so early, he must now view everything he does through a slightly different lens of whether it is consistent with what a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate would do.   Escalating the war in Afghanistan, targeted killings of terrorist leaders or pirates, and engaging in a dozen other acts is now more complicated.

    Roger Alford

  4. I agree Roger.  To some degree the award may place pressure on the President, though he seems to be a pretty independent thinker and I expect he will do what he concludes is best regardless of whether others think he’s living up to the award.   It’s also a risk for the Committee, though it could always express disappointment if they conclude that the President isn’t acting as a Nobel Peace Prize winner should.

    But what about my initial point?  Critics of the award–and some who are glad the president got it though they are sheepish about his credentials–say he hasn’t done anything for peace yet.  While I agree that there is a need for meaningful follow through on a broad and complicated range of issues, I think the President is a global leader for peace and a legitimate recipient of the award because his statements shift a lot of paradigms in ways that promote peace.

    That said, there were other choices.  An interesting and gutsy choice with similar prospective transformative impact would have been the Iranian Green Movement, which though more urgently about domestic rights clearly reflected a disposition favorable to a more peaceful international order.


  5. They gave him the prize because they’re happy he’s not George W. Bush.

  6. I’m a little stumped myself.  He hasn’t been in office long enough to actually accomplish much.  I don’t think the award is about his own actions so far.

  7. Thanks for the note and the link to Obama’s speech.  I agree that this is not for his achievements in office thus far.  The President also made that very clear in his speech.  I think the timing of this award is quite nice for Mr. Obama especially in light of the recent upset at the Olympics.

  8. I agree with many of the comments posted thus far. President Obama’s election is a strong signal to the rest of the world and his presidency will prove to be a meaningful shift away from the previous administration’s attitude towards international issues. The Committee was likely swayed a combination of factors, none being singularly dispositive. Having only been in office for a matter of days before his nomination, I think it would have been more prudent for the award to come during a second term in office after the closing of Guantanamo or some other notable achievement. I think Roger is correct in believing that President Obama will now have to approach the rest of this term (and potentially a subsequent term) from a different perspective. President Obama acknowledged this when he said the award was “a call to action” in his speech. Putting aside the reasons for the honor, it is exciting to see an America being welcomed back to the international table.

  9. We can’t ignore the President’s own reaction to receipt of the award, as a “call to action”, implicitly he affirmed with his response that the award was not a response or indication of any present, definitive achievements in international law thus far. Indisputably, the inauguration of President Obama inaugurated a new era in America’s interaction with nations abroad and a new generalized perspective with respect to formulating both domestic and foreign policy. We are more candid in how we approach and negotiate with nations today-a breath of fresh air. Under his leadership the U.S. has abandoned the prior zero-sum game approach often representative in President Bush’s rhetoric in favor of a more balanced diplomatic approach. However, I am hesitant to put him in the same category as prior recipients who won Nobels for their inspirational rhetoric. For example, it demeans the award to categorize President Obama’s speeches as equal to the likes of Woodrow Wilson, who formulated the foundations to the League of Nations, to Nelson Mandela, who suffered in prison for the political liberalization of his people, and Martin Luther King, who speerheaded a social revolution likewise freeing millions from unjustifiable oppression. Each of these people, at their core promoted the foundational principles of democracy as a way forward. In strictly analyzing President Obama’s efforts thus far, he has dodged definitive policy-making with respect to Afganistan, Iran, and North Korea-where there are limitless opportunities to promote greater freedoms for people. He has initiated efforts on opening Guantanamo but stalemated in the international negotiation process to find a means to that end. Looking at his domestic politics, it is fair to say he is edging away from democratic ideals in many of his effort in favor of a stronger federalist government (sacrificing many soverign freedoms of the states), favoring greater regulation of the free market economy, and adopting more socialist methodology daily. While its an improper characterization to say he, as many radicals assert, is pushing foward a marxist, socialist perspective, I think it is fair to question how democratic is it for the federal government to own portions of private companies and mandate that companies clear compensation packages and other business policies by the federal government before implementing them. This hardly seems representative of the american ideal of promoting a minimally intrusive government so that ideas, ambitions, and pursuits of the individual may flourish. Additionally, it seems to contradict the ideals enshrined in American law’s business judgment rule. I hope the award, at a minimal, will spark strict scruitny and consideration by the domestic press of all of President Obama’s policy efforts, domestic and foreign, so that this 4th branch of American government, the media, returns to its rightful position as an objective critic to further check the balance of powers between the branches of government.

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