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Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize: Assessment and Reaction

Stewart Patrick
Stewart Patrick ( Council on Foreign Relations)
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Stewart Patrick
Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, and Director, Program on International Institutions and Global Governance
Monday, October 9, 2000; 2:15 PM

Stewart Patrick, senior fellow and director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, will be online Friday, Oct. 9, at 2:15 p.m. ET to discuss President Obama winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," and worldwide reaction.

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Stewart Patrick: Hi, Stewart Patrick here with CFR to discuss President Obama's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, and its implications.

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Columbia, Md.: Historical context question - Has anyone else been given this prize so early in a relevant career?

Obama has been president since January, and was not nationally known for peacemaking in his earlier work. I'm curious as to how this fits into the context of previous Nobel winners.

Stewart Patrick: This is a really unusual choice in historical perspective, and some might well argue that it is premature, given that he's occupied the White House for less than a year and has a full plate of unfinished conflicts and global challenges.

historically, the profile of a peace prize winner has been a prominent statesman (or woman) who's actually helped negotiate an end to a conflict (like Teddy Roosevelt after the Russo-Japanese War a century ago, or Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk in South Africa. Alternatively, it's been a person or organization who have devoted their lives or decades to trying to make the world a better place, like Elie Wiesel or the UN Department of Peacekeeping.

This award was given because the Nobel Committee (composed largely of Norwegian parliamentarians) wanted to encourage the continued sea change in U.S. foreign policy after eight tumultuous Bush years.

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Silver Spring, Ms.: Seems pretty clear to me this wasn't necessarily about Obama. This was a rejection of the world community of the philosophies of unilateralism and preemptive war. This was more about Cheney, than Obama, hence the reaction of the Republicans. But criticizing the president for winning it appears unpatriotic and will only further weaken them in 2010. The Dems are going to hammer them for being weak on foreign policy and national security. Obama returned us to diplomacy and cooperation as our constitutionally delegated leader on foreign affairs.

Thank you Nobel Committee and thank you President Obama. I just hope the voters understand the worlds message.

Stewart Patrick: I'd agree that this is as much of a statement of rejection of the Bush world view as an endorsement of President Obama, and it carries some dangers for Mr. Obama domestically.

The Nobel Committee is composed of a cross-section of Norwegian parliamentarians who like most Scandinavians have a very multilateralist and internationalist outlook on life. (Full disclosure--I spent 6 months researching at the Norwegian Nobel institute in the mid 1990s so I have some sense of how it works) This award embodies a collective sigh of relief among Scandinavians who were overjoyed to see President Obama return to the multilateral fold.

But it does risk creating difficulties for the President, who is already under criticism from conservatives for not having accomplished much besides being able to give a good speech. It also can be used by critics who have taken him to task for what they see as excessive self-regard.

That said, I thought the president did a good job in his acknowledgement of the prize with a great sense of humility, by underlining that he felt he did not yet deserve it, and by accepting the award on behalf of all those working for peace around the world.

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Anonymous: Much has been made in news reports and blogs that the deadline for nominations was in early February, shortly after Obama was inaugurated, as though the fix was in. But aren't U.S. presidents routinely nominated? Wasn't Bush nominated more than once? Is there any criteria just to be nominated? I assume that voting was done fairly recently, so obviously the jury would not base their vote just on what transpired prior to Feb. 1.

Stewart Patrick: It is not unusual for a President to be nominated this early in their tenure, but quite unprecedented to have won so quickly. It's rather easy to get nominated, or at even nominate yourself, if you meet the criteria. Nominators can include heads of state, members of parliament, professors of law, and other academics. The Nobel Committee then meets periodically over months to winnow down the actual individuals to a small group, and chooses from that.

The entire process is quite opaque, and can yield some very idiosyncratic results. In recent years, the Committee has moved to define contributions to international peace very broadly, so that we have had Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, or Mohammed Yunus of the Grameen Bank, for instance, as winners.

In the case of President Obama, the Committee was clearly trying to use the moral authority of the prize to reward the President and his administration for their embrace of international institutions, in the hopes of promoting a continuation of this trend.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Has President Obama accomplished some significant behind-the-scenes negotiations of which the public is as yet unaware?

Or maybe Rush Limbaugh's right about it being the Nobel committee's way of urging Obama not to escalate the war in Afghanistan (an effort opposed even by some conservatives, e.g., George Will -- i.e., one that doesn't break down entirely along partisan lines).

Stewart Patrick: The President can take some pride in changing the tone, style, and to some degree substance of U.S. foreign relations, which is clearly what the Nobel Committee was picking up on. He has gone some distance to recommitting the United States to the international rule of law, promised some rather significant steps to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime, reenergized U.S. leadership in climate change, and proposed to have the U.S. ratify some long-languishing treaties.

But the award is clearly premature, because it will take months and probably years in most case to have these significant steps come to fruition.

It is more than a little awkward to have this prize come through the day after U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell noted that Israeli-Palestinian peace is at least several years away, for example, despite the President's efforts.

I would not put too much weight on Rush's comments about Afghanistan. That decision will be made on the basis of strategic assessment of what is do-able in Afghanistan and sustainable among a fast-changing U.S. public opinion on this major military commitment.

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Richmond, Va.: So, if you were king for a day - or more specifically Nobel Committee for a day - what more deserving person would you have picked? I find it an odd choice and it appears a bit unseemly for the committee to become lobbyists, no matter how noble the cause. Am I off the mark to say that it appears that the prize was given before the race was won as an incentive to run for their team (to use a horrible analogy)?

Stewart Patrick: I would have picked somebody like Morgan Tsvangarai, the opposition figure in Zimbabwe, who has been struggling for years to help bring democracy fom Zimbabwe and end the authoritarian rule of Robert Mugabe. There are many genuine heroes out there. Obama might have qualified in several years, depending on his ability to follow-through on his vision, but this was too soon.

I can see the logic in your analogy, actually. This is an effort to try to reinforce what the Committee sees as Obama's instincts--which are quite congenial with their own.

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Northern Virginia: I support Obama, am happy with his record to date, and am baffled though pleased by this development.

Is it partly about nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation? Is that more of a Euro thing (given that they spent years at the hypothetical Ground Zero of WWIII, potentially) that we in the U.S. haven't been following as much in this administration?

Stewart Patrick: As I stated in response to an earlier question, this is in part a reflection of European infatuation with Obama. Particularly from a Scandinavian perspective, it doesn't get much better than this--an American president who is a self-declared citizen of the world, principled and dedicated to the rule of law, a proponent of collective security, etc. The Europeans have long been more comfortable than many Americans with the notion of multilateral constraints on national power (as in the EU), and on the need to yield some freedom of action. And the Committee understands that there is no prospect for international cooperation without sustained U.S. leadership.

What Europeans and many other Obama enthusiasts have not yet come to grips with is the challenge that the President issued to them at the UN General Assembly. The President's "new era of engagement" is not just about the US solving the world's problems. The US is willing to roll up its sleeves to help address global problems, but others too need to step up to the plate. International infatuation with Obama may fade as this realization becomes more apparent, and other countries are asked to do their part to (for example) make concrete contributions to security in Afghanistan, major sacrifices on climate change, etc.

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Chisholm, Minn.: Do you feel that many of us living in the U.S. are too self-centered to appreciate President Obama's global perspectives?

Stewart Patrick: This is a fascinating question. There is no question that Obama embodies something different for an occupant of the White House, and not simply in comparison to President George W. Bush. He is the first to really articulate the view that we live in an era of security interdependence--and that we have a deep and abiding interest in the fates and fortunes of other societies. He has also come up with a clever formula of sovereignty as responsibility: that is, that all nations have rights, but they also have responsibilities to solve global problems--from non-proliferation to disease to hunger to climate change.

Conventional wisdom holds that Americans are inherently insular and unilateralist. This is sometimes true of our politicians, and there is no question that there is a vocal isolationist minority in the United States. But what public opinion polls repeatedly show is that American citizens are actually quite similar to their counterparts abroad in their recognition that we live in an interdependent world, that the United States should not be the world's policeman, and that their own government should cooperation and be prepared to compromise within strong and legitimate international institutions that are consistent with U.S. domestic law and the constitution. So there is a constituency out there for what Obama is selling.

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Arlington, Va.: I voted for Obama both in the Virginia primary and the general election. I find him a very intelligent man with lots of potential in office. That said, this is totally ridiculous. He has not done anything yet. This cheapens the Nobel Peace Prize. It is also extraordinarily condescending to Americans. Maybe I have no right to want Europeans to care about American domestic politics, but this will raise the level of ridicule of Obama and for once the ridicule will be based on something real, not something invented or distorted by the right. It will make it harder for him to lead. I have already been disappointed in the administration's pull-backs and flip-flops on key issues. I can't fathom why the president did not turn the prize down. That would have shown immense character and strength. Why didn't he have the sense to do that? Why didn't his advisors make sure he did?

Stewart Patrick: As I noted earlier, this prize is awkward for the president, to say the least, and a bit embarrassing given how early in his administration he received it. There is no question that the right will make hay of it, as yet another example of "Saint Barack" getting beatified by a spellbound European congregation. That said, I think the President was fairly artful in accepting the award, on behalf of all those working for peace and in the spirit of the award being given in recognition of a global thirst for constructive American engagement after a period in which the United States government often underestimated, to its detriment, the value of international legitimacy.

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Northern Virginia: In Obama's statement of acceptance, he made an allusion (without naming her) to the Burmese leader held in house arrest all these years. He also referred to a brave woman marching in the streets despite bullets. Do you agree with me that the second one (the marcher) was Neda, whose death was captured and sent out via YouTube during the Iranian protests?

Stewart Patrick: I immediately thought of her when he mentioned that example, but am not sure if she is who he had in mind. She has become an iconic figure, of course, much like that gentleman standing in front of the tank in Beijing in 1989. Obama's invocation of both Aung San Su Kui and the female demonstrator suggests he knows he has a lot to live up to, in comparison to those who have given their lives (or long portions of them) to peace and freedom.

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Chisholm, Minn.: Do you feel that many of us living in the U.S. are too self-centered to appreciate President Obama's global perspectives?: Isn't this self-centeredness at the heart of the "American exceptionalism" movement advocated by some religious-right believers?

Stewart Patrick: There are many flavors of American exceptionalism, but the central idea is basically that the United States has a unique role to play in international affairs, either as an example for others to follow or, at times, as a redeemer nation. What is unique is that isolationists, unilateralists, and internationalists like Obama all routinely invoke the touchstones of American exceptionalism to justify their choices. But you are right, invocations of American exceptionalism are often invoked most strongly by conservative (and sometimes religious) nationalists who worry that involvement in global affairs (and a sometime alien world) will sully pristine American values and constitutional traditions. And yet you can also find deep strains of exceptionalism being marshaled in the statements of people like Woodrow Wilson or, indeed, Barack Obama (as well as George W. Bush before him). All are basically laying claim to what it means to be "American."

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Fairfax County, Va.: I found it refreshing that news reports originally flagged him as the third sitting president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Only after several hours did someone remember that he is also the third African-American. But now that they did, who were the first two? Martin Luther King and... ?

Stewart Patrick: The other was Ralph Bunche, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, in 1950.

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Stewart Patrick: Thank you for your questions and comments--I really enjoyed the chat. Have a good weekend!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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