Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize

October 9, 2009


As you may have already seen, Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. You can see his response, which I deeply appreciate and respect, though I disagree with parts of it.

First of all, I’ll say this: I don’t think any United States president is really worthy of an award for peace. As Blake Huggins put it on Twitter, “if the president of the US winning the nobel peace “prize” signifies anything it is that we haven’t a clue what peace really is.” I think, in faithfulness to its name, such an award should go to someone like Bono, or the Invisible Children organization, or any number of similar organizations that are able (willing?) to really focus on peace.

That being said, it is clear from his remarks that Obama realizes this. He doesn’t feel worthy of it, and acknowledges the fact that he is engaged in wars. Some will know that Obama is influenced in his thoughts along these lines by Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism (and you should read this short article, as it gives a good glimpse into what is present in Obama), which is at the least a compelling view, though I do not embrace it.

And I’ll say this: oftentimes I’d like to embrace it. It feels easier than an active pacifism. But it doesn’t resonate with the heart of Jesus, and I’m skeptical of any who think it does. Our challenge as followers of his heart is not to be realistic; our challenge is to follow his heart when it is realistic, and when it isn’t.

But the fact that Obama at least goes that far clearly indicates an advancement from the utter heresies that our last government used to baptize its empire.

Obama’s early summer speech in Cairo has had potentially world-changing effects, from the immediate Iranian uprising to unknown future things. His refusal of the temptation to lend America’s voice to the Iranians further allowed the country to move forward, and today we see Ahmadinejad with a weakened administration that, in all likelihood, will fall to a nonviolent revolution at some point. His wise diplomacy with Russia, and his attempts to get Israel to act like decent human beings, have all lent weight to the argument that he has done wonderful things.

However, many of us know that Nobel Prize nominations were due shortly after Obama took office. None of these unique accomplishments in trying to bring a more peaceful world had happened. Perhaps the only thing he had done was order the prison at Guantanamo closed. So why the Nobel Prize?

I can’t answer this and don’t agree with it, though I think it is clear that the vast majority of the world views Barack Obama as a dramatic improvement in America’s ability to be a decent citizen, and has been willing to give him political capital that he may not deserve at all, simply because, as another person on Twitter said, he could be praised “for ‘not starting any wars yet’ and being ‘way cooler than Bush’.”

As Andrew Sullivan says:

I’ve had some coffee now. Reading through all the reactions, compiled by Chris and Patrick, there are two obvious points: this is premature and this is thoroughly deserved.

Both are right. I don’t think Americans fully absorbed the depths to which this country’s reputation had sunk under the Cheney era. That’s understandable. And so they also haven’t fully absorbed the turn-around in the world’s view of America that Obama and the American people have accomplished. Of course, this has yet to bear real fruit. But you can begin to see how it could; and I hope more see both the peaceful intentions and the steely resolve of this man to persevere.

This president has done a huge amount to bring race relations in this country to a different place, which is why the far right has become so vicious in attacking him and lying about him. They know he threatens their politics of division and rule. He has also directly addressed the Muslim world, telling some hard truths, and played a small role in evoking a similar movement of hope and change in Iran, and finally told the Israelis to stop cutting their nose off to spite their face.

And this may be the essence of it. Unfortunately, the insanity that is today’s Right will be able to trash this for years to come because of their own unwillingness to be introspective. But fortunately, the essence of Barack Obama’s acceptance of the prize could very likely make it worth it:

But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women, and all Americans, want to build — a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents. And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action — a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century.

And that I can support. History will judge it.