What's Wrong With Winning?
Yes, he's got more words than deeds to his credit. But President Obama's Nobel is a reminder of America's unparalleled power to set the world’s agenda.
A lot of people I like and respect are up in arms about President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. That’s part of the problem with being the president of the United States: Turn water into wine and you get in trouble with Mothers Against Drunk Driving; walk on water and the National Association of Bridge Builders wants your head on a platter; win the Nobel Peace Prize eight months into the job and Peter Beinart comes after you with a hatchet.
Before we all go negative and apocalyptic on this one, can’t we just relax, take a deep breath, and congratulate our president on winning the world’s most prestigious political award?
Are our chattering classes really going to give themselves a conniption because the United States has a president who is too popular worldwide? Doesn’t anyone remember what it was like when everyone hated our president?
At a time when the talking heads and the pundits worldwide are obsessed with the precipitous decline of American power, this award testifies to the extraordinary and unparalleled power of the United States to set the world’s agenda.
And really, this peace prize is more than a compliment to President Obama. At a time when the talking heads and the pundits worldwide are obsessed with the precipitous decline of American power, this award testifies to the extraordinary and unparalleled power of the United States to set the world’s agenda.
It is true that President Obama has received the prize more for his words (which are many) than for his deeds (which, so far, are still few). But that only underlines the degree to which the words of an American president have the power to shape events—especially compared to the competition.
Over the last year, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hugo Chavez, and Dmitry Medvedev have made many inspiring speeches and called for many dramatic changes in the world order. Just last month, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the increasingly venerable Supreme Guide of the Libyan Revolution honored the United Nations with impassioned calls to create a new global order and build a lasting framework of stability, morality, and peace. Yet somehow, the Nobel committee passed over these worthies; in the hot-air Olympics, America can still bring home the gold.
But doesn’t this award to a neophyte leader who hasn’t stopped any actual wars yet cheapen the lofty standards of the great peace prizes of the past?
We all remember the lofty accomplishments of such great prize-winners as Bertha Sophie Felicita Von Suttner (1905), Tobias Michael Carel Asser (1911) and, of course, the immortal 1922 honoree, Fridtjof Nansen of Norway. There is Rigoberta Menchú (1992), who would have been a better candidate for the literature prize to honor her contribution to the genre of fictionalized autobiography. Or there is Yasser Arafat (1994) who despite his Nobel will be remembered as the Palestinian leader who in the end could not make peace.
President Obama’s list of concrete achievements, meager though it may yet be, measures up pretty well by these standards.
From the standpoint of the impact on Obama’s presidency, there’s an upside and a downside to the award. On the upside, we can hope that now that he’s got his Nobel, he’ll be spared the prize lust which so disfigures the final years of so many presidential terms. The worst, most damaging outbreak of the Nobel Seeker Syndrome came in 2000 as the Clinton administration combed the world’s trouble spots to land a legacy for the departing incumbent. Now that he’s got one, we can hope that Obama will deal with world problems on their merits, rather than narcissistically seeking triumphs for his résumé. All this is good, and it’s also good that the Nobel win wipes out the Olympic loss. Last week, everyone was writing off Obama’s vaunted international popularity. He was toast, past his sell-by date, jumping the shark. Now he’s back; Oslo returns what Copenhagen took. Good for him, good for us.
Looking ahead, though, he’s got problems. At some point, either his fine speeches and peace offers will bring progress on various global problems—or they won’t. If they don’t, the contrast between hype and reality will further undercut his power at the time he needs it most. If the months and years go by and he’s not making progress on the tough issues the U.S. faces around the world, the peace prize hanging around his neck will look less like an ornament, and more like an albatross.
Walter Russell Mead is the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.