Foreign Policy Blogs

A gutsy pick

The very least that everyone can admit about the Nobel Committee’s pick for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was that it is a gutsy pick.  However, that may be the only thing that everyone can agree on.  News that Barack Obama will be this year’s recipient of the world’s most distinguished humanitarian award led to an explosion of opinion on the internet that included everything from joy and praise to shock and dismay.

The pick is seen as even gutsier considering that nominations were due just two weeks after Obama took office.  While some have praised the committee’s choice, including previous award recipients Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Shimon Peres, others remain shocked that a sitting American president currently engaged in two active wars would be awarded the prize before accomplishing any significant feats on the international stage.

Editorials in Venezuela and comments from people in Pakistan are typical of this latter view, although even in Obama-friendly Europe there were plenty of commentators bewildered by the committee’s choice.  An editorial in France’s Le Monde questioned whether Obama was worthy of the award considering his competition and the compromises on human rights that he has already made with China.  Le Temps in Switzerland asked whether the Nobel committee “had fallen on its head.”  But others have welcomed the choice, including the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who was awarded the prize himself in 2005.  Even in Russia, The Christian Science Monitor reports that though surprising, the choice has been warmly accepted in general opinion.

However despite all the opinions being flung about, the question remains of why?  Though ostensibly awarded for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” questions remain, mainly because he hasn’t been in office long enough to truly strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation yet.  Thus, the real reason for the award may be what Joel Davis calls the restoration of “the proper US role in the world” after eight years of wide global opposition to American foreign policy.  While nothing has yet been accomplished, the award recognizes a possible sea change in American foreign policy that is far more in line with what the world ideally expects from America.

Such analysis reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a European about the difference between the United States and America.  He argued that the “United States” was the last standing superpower, the economic giant, the country with the largest defense budget in the world, and the country that other countries were quick to criticize.  But “America” was still that idealized dream where anything can happen, the ultimate melting pot, the place where freedom rings.  The dichotomy is staggering, but difficult to disagree with because the truth is that the US is all of those things but rarely are those two lists put together.  And throughout this last American presidential campaign, it was clear to most of the people who voted for him that Obama offered that view of America.  In this light, the Nobel Committee’s choice may have been more about welcoming America back to the international community where – like it or not – it has been missed, than anything having to actually do with Obama as a person.

Nevertheless it is likely that the debate will go on, and I suspect that more people than usual will be paying attention to Obama’s acceptance speech in December.  This is not the first time the committee’s choice has led to controversy, nor will it be the last.  Though I hope that the precedent set here by the Nobel Committee does not become a habit, it may be best to let this one slip by and acknowledge that peace and progress comes in many different forms.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa