Nobel Rationale

Why did Obama win the Nobel? Since the committee didn’t really say, he can.

Say what you want about whether President Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech in the Rose Garden was an effective combination of humility—”I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments”—and political savvy. From now on, everything he does will have the stamp, however indirect, of the world’s most prestigious prize:

President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama will meet this morning with his Cabinet to discuss strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This afternoon, President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama will host a picnic for United States Secret Service employees and their families. Later in the day, President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama will go to the gym, check Facebook, and tuck his daughters into bed.

The prize’s vagueness helps. In his speech, Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland gave only abstract justification for picking Obama. “We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year,” he said. “We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do.” The committee’s statement wasn’t much more specific, alluding only to his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

In his speech, Obama used this vagueness to his advantage. If the Nobel committee wasn’t going to explain the award, then Obama would: “I will accept this award as a call to action,” he said, “a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century.”

He then proceeded to summarize his ambitions for the United States and the global community, touching on nuclear disarmament, climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religious persecution, and the fight against poverty and disease. He even mentioned the war in Afghanistan, which, whatever its goals, is still a war. The result was a choose-your-own acceptance speech.

Thus was Obama able to give the impression that the Nobel committee wasn’t blessing any one aspect of his agenda, be it health care reform or nuclear cutbacks or cap-and-trade. It was blessing everything. Anything he does will now have some added symbolic heft: In an international climate where President doesn’t have much gravitas anymore, President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner does. Whether it’s asking India to step up emissions controls, negotiating sanctions with Iran, or discussing free trade in Latin America, Obama now has added prestige, if not authority.

Then again, the prize is unlikely to persuade critics who disagree with Obama’s diplomatic approach to international problems. And by enhancing his image as the darling of the European left, the prize plays perfectly into the right’s attempt to portray Obama as, well, a darling of the European left. Sen. Orrin Hatch, speaking on Fox News after the announcement, summed up the sentiment: “Hopefully, this will help the president realize he represents everybody, not just the far left.” Nobel controversies of years past—most notably Yasser Arafat and  Jimmy Carter—provide plenty of precedent to dismiss Obama’s nomination as yet more Scandinavian twaddle.

Politically, however, the prize is unlikely to hurt Obama that much. For most Americans, being liked by the rest of the world is a good thing. And in international relations, Obama could actually use the prize to be more hawkish. Even Nobel Prize winner Barack Obama thinks we should bomb Iran, could be a talking point three years from now. Think of it as a deposit of political capital—only from the international left rather than the American center.

Obama made sure to spread the wealth around: “This award is not simply about the efforts of my administration—it’s about the courageous efforts of people around the world. And that’s why this award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity.” Which of those strivers for justice and dignity he will share the $1.4 million prize money with is another question.

AP Video: Obama Reacts to Winning Nobel Peace Prize