Prized for his noble words


Within hours of Friday’s announcement that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, commentators and politicians all over the map were denouncing the award as “absurd.”

At first blush, that seems the only reasonable response, because the president has yet to bring peace anywhere, and given the Nobel committee’s deadlines, his nomination for the prize must have occurred within 11 days of his inauguration. On the other hand, under the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will, the peace prize is awarded by five lawmakers selected from the Norwegian Storting, or parliament. The committee’s current president is Norway’s former prime minister, Thorbjorn Jagland, now president of the Storting.

In other words, the prize was conferred by experienced politicians who seem to know exactly what they were doing. Expressing its particular approval of Obama’s “vision ... of a world without nuclear weapons,” the committee wrote: “Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics. ... Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. ... For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman.”


This year’s prize, then, is meant to reward words and not deeds.

Considering the 89 Nobel Peace Prizes that have been awarded since 1901 is a melancholy experience. By and large, they’re the chronicle of a blood-soaked century’s fitful hopes and consistent failures. With the exception of a handful of organizations -- the Red Cross, the American Friends Service Committee, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees -- whose good efforts continue, it’s largely a story of individuals involved with forgotten peace initiatives, abandoned agreements and ultimately ineffectual treaties. The notable recent exceptions are the prizes given to the people who brought an end to South African apartheid and Ulster’s civil strife.

But it’s certainly true of the three previous American officeholders who were awarded the prize. Theodore Roosevelt won for his role in forging the Portsmouth Treaty, which ended the Russo-Japanese War but brought only a temporary cessation of animosity between those two countries. Woodrow Wilson won for his promotion of the League of Nations, but he was unable to persuade even his own country to join, and the organization failed utterly after the rise of fascism. Vice President Charles Gates Dawes was given the 1925 award for his formulation of a “plan” that was supposed to stabilize the German economy while allowing the payment of reparations for World War I. It didn’t, but it did further poison his already bitter relationship with President Coolidge, whose Cabinet meetings Dawes refused to attend.

Against that backdrop, the Norwegian pols’ preference for Obama’s hopeful rhetoric doesn’t seem quite so absurd.

Obama remains a powerful voice of hope and change for many Europeans, not only because of his eloquence and his reassertion of America’s role as a leader of international diplomacy, but also because he physically embodies change as progress. In this country, most people have taken their cue from a president determined to govern as chief executive of a post-racial society. Many Europeans -- and particularly those associated with the prize -- are bound to recall that just 45 years ago, the Nobel went to another black American, Martin Luther King Jr., then involved in the struggle against legalized racial separation in the United States. Now, against all odds and expectations, that same United States has elected an African American president -- and it is Europe that faces its own questions of race, ethnicity and identity.

It’s probably too much to hope that the Nobel committee’s decision to honor Obama for the constructive civility of his thinking and the inspiration engendered by his eloquence might exert any similar influence on our own poisonously partisan politics. The right-wing blogosphere was quivering with outrage Friday, a sentiment that reached its nadir in the assertion of commentator Erick Erickson that the award represented “an affirmative action quota.” Another right-wing blogger actually speculated that Obama had delayed announcing his decision on Afghan troop levels in order to get the prize.

It would have been unthinkable a few years ago that the opposition party would not have at least extended the president perfunctory congratulations for this honor; he is, after all, the head of state. No longer. Before Obama even had a chance to speak in public, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele denounced the award. The Democratic National Committee fired back, accusing the GOP of “joining the terrorists” because the Taliban and Hamas also criticized Obama’s selection. So it goes in a country whose two political party organizations now are little more than hair-trigger attack machines.


Still, the Nobel Prize is a funny thing that sometimes confers its own peculiar specific gravity. Earlier this week, for example, the literature award went to a Romanian-born author, Herta Muller, who is little read in her adopted country -- Germany, in whose language she writes -- and known hardly at all in this country. On Thursday morning, when the award was announced, “The Land of Green Plums,” by all accounts her best book, was No. 56,359 on; by the close of business that day, it was No. 7.

If the peace prize increases our attention to Obama’s continuing appeal to our nature’s better angels -- both at home and abroad -- by a mere fraction of that climb, where’s the absurdity?