Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 October 2009
Issue No. 968
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

Does Obama deserve it?

In awarding Barack Obama the world's most prestigious prize, the Nobel Committee has reaffirmed that millions still pin their hopes on the US president, writes Hassan Nafaa*

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama. He is not the first US president to win that honour. Three of his predecessors have won the prize. Jimmy Carter won it 22 years after leaving office. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson won it while in office, in 1906 and 1919 respectively. But Obama's case is different on two counts: one regarding the time he has had in office and the other regarding the reasons for the award.

Roosevelt and Wilson both won the prize in the second year of their second term, six years into office. Obama was awarded the prize only nine months after taking office.

As for the reasons cited for the award, Roosevelt was given the prize for his efforts in ending the Russian- Japanese war of 1905. Wilson got it for his efforts in the Versailles Conference and his role in the creation of the League of Nations.

Obama didn't win the prize for tangible achievement, but for his words and intentions. That's why many were stunned by the news, including Obama. It is not that Obama is not an appropriate candidate, but the timing and the reasons cited for the award were unusual to say the least.

For starters, the deadline for the Nobel Peace Prize nominations was in February, less than a month after Obama took office. Some would say that the Obama win is evidence that the Nobel Peace Prize has been "politicised". But objections of that type don't make much sense. As you may know, the prize is only given to individuals or institutions that have helped promote international peace and security. As such, it is a political prize, and always has been.

It is true that the Nobel Committee offered a rather broad definition of the sources of threat to international peace, including such matters as poverty, pollution, organised crime and global epidemics. This led to the prize going to individuals, or institutions, that fought poverty. Among those are the Bangladeshi Mohamed Younis, who started the idea of micro credit for the poor, and former US vice-president Al Gore, who has become a key spokesman for environmental issues.

Normally, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize would be someone who has done something tangible to achieve peace: someone who has settled crises, defused international tensions, or managed to reduce them. The Nobel Committee has conventionally awarded the prize for outstanding public figures that did something extraordinary to promote world peace, either before or after leaving office.

Because public figures are often controversial, the award is often disputed, just as we see in Obama's case. Also, efforts exerted in political and social areas can only be assessed in a personal way. Therefore, ideological and doctrinal considerations may get in the way.

Personally, I believe that the awarding committee erred in giving the prize to Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres, and even Henry Kissinger, all of whom had helped seal "peace" deals at one point or another. But these peace deals, which were used to justify giving them the Nobel Peace Prize, failed to advance the cause of justice or the norms of international law. As far as I am concerned, these men were simply promoting narrow interests, not the cause of legitimacy. They were serving limited needs, not advancing noble objectives.

Many were puzzled, though not exactly dismayed, by the fact that the Nobel Committee didn't make its decision regarding Obama based on tangible deeds but rather based on words and intentions. This fact poses legitimate questions on two levels. One is whether Obama is entitled to the prize. And the other is the manner in which the prize is likely to influence Obama's policies and programmes.

The first matter is hardly controversial. The prize has been given in the past to individuals who haven't done anything to promote peace, and indeed may have obstructed its course. Therefore, there is no doubt that Obama, by comparison, deserves the prize. Indeed, the hopes pinned on Obama's ability to make the world a better place are still quite high. Some people are less elated about his policy than they were a few months ago, but still, the hope is there.

As for how the prize would influence Obama and US decision-making, this is something we need to discuss at length. It is quite interesting that the prize has been given to a US president and so early in his tenure. Obama is quite aware of that. But let's not forget that Obama is the president of the mightiest nation on earth. And as such it is his duty to promote the higher national interests of his country and to defend its security at home and abroad through all available means.

It is a fact that international relations have always been, and will be in the foreseeable future, governed by the existing balance of power rather than the principles of justice and law. Therefore, one is to expect that each time interests clash with values, decision-makers would normally allow interests to overshadow ideological beliefs. Obama is not the exception to the rule. Still, let's not forget that the US is in a true crisis and that the American people brought Obama to office on an agenda of change.

I, for one, believe that the debate that ensued after the announcement of Obama's Nobel Prize win resembles the debate that started some time ago among those who were once excited about Obama coming into office. Recently, Obama's supporters have split into two groups. The first group believes that they have been duped and that Obama is all words and no action. The second group gives him the benefit of doubt. That second group believes that Obama's current policies are merely tactical, designed to keep at bay anti-change pressures at home and abroad.

It seems that the dominant current in the Nobel Committee belongs to that latter group. Committee members have wagered on Obama's ability to make a difference, and by awarding him the prize, they are calling on him to stay on the right track. This brings us to another question. Is Obama's win an incentive for change, or an impediment? It may be too early to answer, but from now on, each time Obama faces a major decision on peace and war he will have to remember that he is a Nobel laureate. This doesn't mean that he will necessarily promote the cause of peace at every turn.

The enemies of change inside and outside the United States are outspoken, and they have leverage even on the US president. The same people who have tried in the past to blackmail Obama because of his African and Islamic roots will try again. And they will use the Nobel Peace Prize as their argument. They will say Obama is trying too hard to be popular and doing too little about all types of terror, especially the Islamic variety.

But Obama has won, regardless. He has been given this immense tribute despite his African and Islamic roots, despite his young age, and despite his short service in office. If anything, this tells us that Obama's charm is still working, and that many across the world believe in the man. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps one mustn't abandon hope that Obama will do something to make the world a better place.

* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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