The Nobel Peace Prize has always been a reflection of the political inclinations of the Norwegian Nobel Committee – a group of five former lawmakers and politicians from one of Europe’s most liberal countries. The list of winners over the past two decades include Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Anan and Yasser Arafat, and reads more like a political commitment to left-wing causes than a sober award for promoting real peace in the world. This year’s award to Barack Obama is all that – and more. In fact, for the first time the Nobel Committee has managed a twofer: it has rewarded someone who shares its goal of diplomacy “first, last and always”, while at the same time placing a substantial set of symbolic handcuffs around the U.S. president’s ability to use force in the defense of American interests – including the war in Afghanistan. In bestowing the Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said this about Barack Obama:
Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play.
For Europe, Obama thus represents a real breakthrough: an American president who fancies himself as a “citizen of the world”, who has spent his first nine months rejecting the notion of “American exceptionalism”, and who seems to truly believe in the transformative potential for talking through even the most intractable problems. After eight years of a Bush Administration that was committed body and soul to American interests and security, Barack Obama represents a leader more interested in compromise than conflict, and who believes that American national interests are largely indistinguishable from those of the international community.
It would be a mistake, however, to view the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama as simply a rejection of the Bush years – or as just a pat on the back to America for electing such a cosmopolitan “man of the world”. The decision of the Nobel Committee to make award Obama was influenced heavily by the President’s commitment to a core value of the European peacenik movement – nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. The elimination of all nuclear weapons is an idealism based on the utility of diplomacy – even with rogue states such as North Korea and Iran – and is the logical extension of Europe’s multilateral engagement strategy. As Agot Valle, a Norwegian politician and member of the Nobel Committee said in a phone interview with the Wall Street Journal after the announcement,"…this was primarily an award on his work on, and commitment to, nuclear disarmament -- and his dialogue.”
But it is really more than just about Obama’s willingness to talk. Rather, there is something more strategic involved: an attempt to restrict Obama’s range of decisions in the critical reassessment of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. According to Valle, the Nobel Committee reached its decision on the Obama award at their final meeting on October 5. It was thus no secret that the Obama Administration was in the midst of a full scale review of General Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional U.S. soldiers in an expansion of the U.S. mission. Nor was it a secret that Vice President Joe Biden and others in the Administration were openly lobbying for a change in U.S. strategy that would dramatically reduce the American footprint in Afghanistan in favor of a targeted “offshore” force that would be used for surgical strikes against terrorist targets. The Nobel Committee clearly also knows that in the wake of an all-out focus on health care reform, the Obama Administration has let public support for the Afghan war drift; the latest polling shows that less than half of America supports the war that Obama himself once called “necessary” for America’s long-term security. The Norwegians know that Obama is wavering on Afghanistan, and that the Peace Prize could be an effective leverage point in convincing him to radically reduce – or even end – the U.S. war there.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee understands that awarding Obama the Peace Prize will appeal to the President’s own image as a transformational figure, and will serve to heighten the already stratospheric confidence he has in his ability to alter the status quo ante. Obama’s own belief in the power of his words is well known. Now, with the Nobel Prize in hand, he has a validation that Europe also sees him as The One. The net effect of this will put Obama in a tough position as he addresses America’s security concerns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere. With little more than a press release, the Nobel Committee has achieved what Europe has been trying to do for a generation: it has handcuffed the American president with the imprimatur of “Peacemaker”, narrowing the options for unilateral action in the process. For the peaceniks of Europe, awarding Obama the Nobel was a true masterstroke of preventive medicine.
The Nobel Committee has thus given the world's most prestigious award for peace to the American commander-in-chief in a time of war. Can the Nobel Peace Prize winner really escalate the war in Afghanistan? Or, for that matter, order a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the event that the current round of diplomacy fails? Even before the Prize, there was obviously much doubt as to whether Obama would make such tough choices. Now, it seems even more unlikely.