Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, that's right, Barack Obama, in office for less than nine months and with (as yet) little to show for his diplomacy of apology and unilateral concessions, has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."
The decision has left pundits of all stripes scratching their heads as to the explanation for such a bizarre award. Some have ridiculed the award as premature or as an attention getting stunt by the Norwegian panel that awarded the prize. While both judgments are accurate, they do not reach the real basis for the surprising decision.
The Nobel Panel has for years been trying to use its award to nudge U.S. politics in a leftward direction by rewarding public figures who support the diplomatic, economic, and climate policies of the European left. In the contest between liberals and conservatives in America, the panel has left little doubt as to where its fundamental loyalties lie. Over the past several years, the prizes have been used to rebuke the policies of the Bush Administration and to reward some of its loudest critics.
Three years ago, in 2006, the Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore for his advocacy of policies to arrest global warming, a none too subtle dig at the Bush administration for its opposition to the Kyoto protocols adopted by several European nations (including Norway). In 2002, the award was given to Jimmy Carter ostensibly for his efforts to promote human rights but, more realistically, to reward a critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East and an opponent of the then impending intervention in Iraq. The 2008 prize in economics was awarded to Paul Krugman, again for work done years ago in international economics but in reality for his political attacks in his columns in the New York Times on the domestic and international policies of the Bush Administration.
The award to Obama must thus be seen in this light—that is, as an effort to shore up the new administration in Washington and to encourage Obama to break further and more boldly with the policies of his predecessor. It is true that President Obama has yet to achieve anything significant along the lines for which the award has traditionally been presented, but that misses the point behind the decision announced today. The Prize was given in order to recognize a new direction in policy in the United States and to reiterate the committee's conviction that for eight years America was on the wrong path but is now on the right one.
In attempting to intervene so obviously in U.S. politics, the Nobel panel is taking the risk that its prizes will be discredited as nakedly political or that its awardees will come to be viewed in America as toadies of the European left, as some of them (Jimmy Carter and Al Gore) already are. Recent awards have raised eyebrows in the United States regarding the motives behind them, but this one may prove to be a real eye-opener. In the terms of international politics, the Nobel committee is trying to use; its "soft power" (it has no hard power) to reward its allies and rebuke its adversaries in the United States. That tactic will work only so long as it does not become too obvious—and with this award it appears that the Nobel committee has overworked its message.