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Friday, October 9, 2009

All Eyes on the Prize

The quite surprising news out of Oslo today that President Obama will receive the Nobel Peace prize is likely to raise eyebrows even among the President’s supporters. The debate in the United States will likely provide a rehash of last year’s election campaign, with the President’s critics arguing that his thin resume does not justify the honor. However, the real question surrounding the award is whether Obama is a Willy Brandt or a Woodrow Wilson, two prominent leaders who received the award at different stages of their political careers. The Nobel committee clearly hopes that Obama’s award signals the potential of things to come, just as Brandt’s Ostpolitik had not yet born fruit when he received the prize in 1971. For Wilson, the Nobel award is the tale of promise unfulfilled, as his efforts to build an enduring peace following World War I failed when the Senate failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty and thereby beginning the slow death of the League of Nations. The general problem with the Peace prize is that unlike the Literature prize, winning the award does not appear to help your career. Since the award is normally given for past service – hence Jimmy Carter’s win in 2002 – it does not lend itself to furthering one’s goals. The exception to this might be when the award is given to lesser known human rights or environmental campaigners such as Jodi Williams or Wangari Maathai, who can parley the award into greater recognition for their causes. The larger point is that despite the prestige of winning the Nobel, Obama will be hard pressed to use it to support his foreign policy goals. The large number of Democratic winners over the past decade (3) is likely to lead Republicans to view the award as a left-wing coronation rather than a distinguished prize. On the other hand, the award will raise Obama’s esteem in the international community where he already enjoys broad popular support. However, the award occurs in the same week as the release of a report by an American Political Science Association task force investigating anti-Americanism. The report argues that while Obama does enjoy widespread popularity around the world and is partially responsible for the improved views of the U.S., there remains widespread discontent with many U.S. foreign policies. The awarding of the Peace prize could contribute to the opposite effect of what occurred during the Bush presidency, with Obama enjoying more positive ratings than the country as a whole. In the end, as with Woodrow Wilson, the question remains as to whether the goals that Obama has set for U.S. foreign policy will be matched by results.