Why Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize

Critics vocal on Obama's peace prize, New Zealand HeraldThe Nobel Peace Prize award to Barack Obama has provoked widely diverse reactions. I noted in Australia appropriate polite congratulations from Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, but jarringly rude mockery from Alexander Downer. 

Internationally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel applauded the award, saying: 'Obama has set a new tone in the world'. Former prize-winners the Dalai Lama and Shimon Peres were also pleased.

On the other hand, there were bitter denunciations from the Taliban, obviously. The Republican Right, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, Foxnews and the Wall Street Journal opposed the award, arguing that Obama hadn't achieved anything to deserve it: it was a prize for mere aspiration. In Israel, there was cynicism from all sides.

Yet the Norwegian Nobel committee explained its rationale clearly. Obama has done more this year for world peace than any other possible contender:

'through his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples ... Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position ... Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts ... Obama [has] captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future.'

I can comfortably support all these arguments. For comparable reasons, US Time Magazine nine months ago made Obama their Person of the Year.

So why in the US Republican Right does Obama remain a polarising figure of hate and derision? He is anathema to the Right, precisely because he rejects the idea of the US imposing its interests, views and values on the world by superior force.

The Right's argument that Obama hasn't achieved anything yet is essentially a smokescreen for their bile at knowing that Obama got this international award precisely because, truly, he is 'not Bush' — that Obama has launched an international healing, after the great damage worked by his predecessor. These critics cannot bear the world's relief and thanks that Obama is not Bush. This humiliates them, and they are rationalising their rage.

There are areas of concrete peacemaking achievement already. In US-Russian relations, the provocative NATO missile shield project in Central Europe has been cancelled, the Georgian adventure set to rest, and the Russian government has visibly warmed to the West in response. Nuclear disarmament negotiations are moving again.

On the other great world security crisis — disruptive climate change — China's President Hu Jintao dramatically pledged in the US last month to cut China's carbon dioxide emissions relative to GDP by a notable margin. I believe China's rapid move to the forefront of international climate negotiations was encouraged by purposeful high-level US bilateral diplomacy this year.

In the Middle East, at least the cruel Israeli bombardment and blockading of Gaza has ceased.

Even on the world's 'small' security crises — not small for people suffering from them — the Obama style of extending a hand of friendship to the clenched fist of adversaries is reaping rewards. Following the US decision to re-engage with Burma's military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi is again playing a more active political role in the search for a political settlement there. These things are connected.

In diplomacy, the distinction between words and action, aspiration and achievement, is subtle — too subtle for some. If well-chosen inspirational language (like Obama's highly symbolic and allusive speech in Cairo, directed to the Arab world) improves the climate of negotiation in long-standing angry disputes, this is an achievement in itself. I find the claim that Obama hasn't achieved anything yet in international peacemaking a caricature of reality. He has already achieved much, and he brings hope for more.

At another level, what do Papal Encyclicals achieve? Does their moral guidance actually make anyone do anything? Yet no reasonable person could argue that Papal Encyclicals don't have impact. To exhort to good action, to speak a credible language of moral inspiration and hope to the world, is an achievement in itself. Thank goodness we have an American President who is prepared to do so — and to try to back up these aspirations with US assets, appropriately deployed.

Afghanistan remains my biggest problem with Obama. I grieve the pointless sacrifice of the lives of Afghanis and the intervention forces. I pray that Obama is preparing an honourable exit strategy, which will have to bring Taliban elements into government; that he will find a way through his Afghanistan dilemma, and quickly.

Tony KevinTony Kevin, a former Australian diplomat, is author of A Certain Maritime Incident: the Sinking of SIEV X and Walking the Camino. He will discuss his latest book Crunch Time (reviewed here), on the global climate crisis, with ABC economist Stephen Long at Gleebooks in Sydney on 21 October, and with Robert Manne at Readings, Carlton in Melbourne on 26 October.

Topic tags: Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize, Republican Right, Rush Limbaugh, Israel, Palestine, Gaza, Afghanistan



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A welcome article giving Obama due recognition for his impact. My only concern is the comment on Afghanistan.

Hazara refugees are praying Obama stays the course in Afghanistan as they see this as their only hope of having their torn country find a future beyond the decades of civil war and persecution of their ethnic group in particular. A return of the Taliban would mean a return to the dreadful circumstances the Hazaras fled and continue to flee as the Taliban regains control in areas of Afghanistan. Even those who fled to Pakistan have no safe haven there from Taliban and their allies. This is a just war if Hazaras are ever to find a home in peace again.
Camilla | 14 October 2009

Obama is certainly a fine orator and the most intelligent U.S. President in fifty years. He demonstrates a willingness to dialogue with Bush Juniors previously taboo people of the world. He gives hope to many. All very fine and truly laudable indeed.
Permit me a reality check however Mr. Kevin. You write: ' In the Middle East, at least the cruel Israeli bombardment and blockading of Gaza has ceased.'

It is certainly true that the 'cruel bombardment' of the inhabitant's of Gaza by the Israelis finished after 22 days and 1474 Palestinian deaths. The cruel blockading of Gaza by the Israelis has not been lifted. To this day not one bag of cement for instance has been allowed into Gaza to allow some reconstruction.

To put it in a local context: 173 Australians perished in fires here. Imagine the planetary outrage if seven or eight times that number had died and not one iota of assistance in reconstruction had been permitted. Pause a minute and consider!
Let us look at what Obama actually said about Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestine : ' No more settlements.' He did not say ' No settlements.'

david JAY AITCH | 14 October 2009

I very much enjoyed reading this article, the parallel with the impact of papal encyclical and th wonderfully expressed: 'To exhort to good action, to speak a credible language of moral inspiration and hope to the world, is an achievement in itself.'
Thank you again for this reminder.
anna brown | 14 October 2009

Obama is the Nobel Peace Prize Winner you have when you are not having a Nobel Peace Prize Winner.

Tony Kevin's reasons for Obama's award are about absences: Obama is not Bush (since when is the Nobel Peace Prize given to people because they are not someone else?); Obama is deserving of the prize because Israeli war crimes against the people of Gaza have ceased. (Have they?)

Is there anything that Obama has actually achieved that merits this recognition?

The Middle East will be the real test of Obama's peace credentials. If he does not compel Israel towards a freeze on Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and acceptance of a sovereign Israeli state - if necessary, by the withdrawal of American financial subventions, military hardware, diplomatic support and espionage and satellite intelligence - then he will be exposed as just aother corrupt and cynical American President.
Sylvester | 14 October 2009

To quote another--and uncontroversial--Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mother Theresa, 'And today the greatest means - the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion.' Obama calls for peace, but there can be no peace. His unrelenting promotion of abortion fires up war within the family, and disqualifies him from the prize.
david williams | 14 October 2009

I didn't know the Nobel Peace Prize was an encouragement award. How many nominated people didn't get a Nobel who actually have achieved something?
Ben Wells | 14 October 2009

I thought this article clearly showed some of the different reactions to President Obama's reception of the Nobel Peace Prize

What a truly encouraging occurrence for President Obama and for the world.
He seems to have a wisdom beyond his age, and is indeed working toward inclusion and respect, as against exclusion and violence.

His affirming qualities are like the proverbial 'breath of fresh air'. If we cannot have consultation, for which he strives, we have power, which ultimately leads to conflict.

President Obama does not claim to be perfect, and he needs all the support we can give, as we all work toward a more peaceful society
Bernie Introna | 14 October 2009

Well written and most provoking for all fair minded peoples. The 'Far Right',the Bushs,the Howards etc,have to realise they 'LOST' their elections.the children of the light have had enough of 'War Mongering' disguised as patriotism...and all who stand up against them branded as traitors to their country.
john M Costigan | 14 October 2009

Nominations for this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner closed on 1 February 2009, 12 days after Obama's inauguration as U..S.President. What did he achieve in 12 days that he could qualify. Hundreds of more worthy people over the years have been passed over. Winning a Nobel Prize, particularly for Peace, now means nothing.
Anthony John | 14 October 2009

Thank you Tony,
The unfortunate thing that most of those who think they are doing good, to right the evils of this world, is the saying, a corrupted interpretation of the teaching of the scriptures, 'My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.'
What a justification for 'belting up' those with whom you do not agree! Much better to 'Do justly, love justice and walk humbly with thy God'.
Jock | 14 October 2009

"To exhort to good action, to speak a credible language of moral inspiration and hope to the world, is an inspiration in itself." The difference between Papal Encyclicals and presidential addresses which 'exhort' is that Popes do not have the executive power of a democratically elected head of government.
Claude Rigney | 15 October 2009

Well said Tony! It is a relief to hear some frank (and documented!) assessment of what Obama has already achieved. I have just returned from the US, disillusioned even with the New York Times, which has allowed its obsession with political tactics to obscure its President's achievements. It is saddening to see to what extent America still chooses to define itself by opposition to anything other, particular the European 'other' ('cheese-eating surrender monkeys' etc.), so universal health provision is deemed 'socialist'. Meanwhile, Americans die, and vested interests erode American democracy and traduce the reputation of their own president.
Morag Fraser | 16 October 2009

to tony kevin:

i am a fairly new subscriber to eureka street and have found some articles honest and interesting. your article makes me cringe to see that the continued bashing by the left of the evil republican right is going on unfortunately not only within my country, USA, but in your country.

Obama's anticipated receipt of the Prize is shameful to all of those incredible people in the world, left and right and center who sacrifice for others. your words have changed my mind about this subscription.
barbara ford | 16 October 2009

Not persuaded. On these grounds, you'd give it to him EVERY year just for exercising his office well.

In my view this exercise has diminished the Nobel brand.
Michael Walker | 16 October 2009

Obama deserved the Nobel Peace prize for removing so much of the centuries old lack of trust of the white people by black people.

He has done this by standing for president and winning; and winning with the vote of millions of white Americans.

Who of us did not have a wonderful feeling of joy that the US, which had shown great discrimination of black people, had finally put this behind them. A real peace had come in an undeclared war.

Perhaps it wasn't politically correct for the Nobel committee to say this but I believe it was the real reason for the award -- and the world knows it.

Blacks can see that the majority of white people in the USA and even in the rest of the world no longer accept discrimination as acceptable.
Bede Hickey | 16 October 2009

Thanks to Tony Kevin and Eureka Street for this factual article re Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize. Appreciation also to SBS Dateline for the Interview with the Nobel Peace Prize Chairperson re this choice of Obama.Decidedly less appreciation to their key interviewer/anchor man who apparently was unable to hear any of Chairperson's factual reasons for the award choice no matter how often reiterated. The difference in relations with Russia since Obama's election was one area clearly cited as Tony Kevin does in this article.
Michele Madigan | 05 November 2009

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