Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

To Understand Obama’s Nobel, Think Not of America, but of America in the World

Just about the best analysis of Obama’s Nobel that I have yet seen is this op-ed essay by Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general in New York and a close ally of Ehud Barak (that’s more a compliment to Barak than to Alon).

His main point is that, as I argued in an earlier blog post, the radically different American presence that Obama brings to the world stage is in itself a substantive achievement. Here’s how Alon puts it:

Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize because of an intellectual effort, rather than diplomatic action. He won for his attempt to shatter old thinking and formulate policy and diplomacy of cooperation, not because of his achievements…

Alon elaborates on how the Nobel committee treats such “intellectual efforts”:

A close examination of the history of Nobel Peace Prizes attests to considerable expansion of the term and conditions for granting the prize. Henri Kissinger was awarded a Nobel for the agreement to end the fighting and bring peace to Vietnam – but there was neither an end to fighting nor peace. The same was true of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Arafat, who received the prize in 1994. In both cases the Nobel was awarded for breaking paradigms, an effort to shatter an intellectual impasse, and political courage, rather than achievements.

The Dalai Lama worked for peace and received the prize in 1989. Yet it’s difficult to quantify his contribution to peace. It’s also difficult to say that IAEA Chief Mohammed ElBaradei, who was awarded the prize in 2005, contributed to world peace in a more concrete manner than Barak Obama. The apex was of course in 2007, when the prize was given to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In the expanding world of the term “peace,” Al Gore contributed to world peace by encouraging international cooperation on a worldwide problem.

Peace is mostly a journey, not a destination. The Nobel is memorable in large part because of its naming of the beacons that light the way forward, like the pillar of fire that was placed for us in Sinai.

Also useful reading on the Nobel is this blog post by E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post. He does a good job of going through the various takes (at least the minimally respectable ones) for and against the award and deconstructs them. One of his best points: he “liked Harold Meyerson’s take that the award should have gone to the American electorate for changing our country’s approach to the world.”

Late addition (call it my Monday-morning self-quarterbacking) is this counterpoint by Ross Douthat, the current conservative columnist on the New York Times op-ed page:

True, Obama didn’t ask for this. It was obvious, from his halting delivery and slightly shamefaced air last Friday, that he wishes the Nobel committee hadn’t put him in this spot.

But he still wasn’t brave enough to tell it no.

Obama gains nothing from the prize. No domestic constituency will become more favorably disposed to him because five Norwegians think he’s already changed the world — and the Republicans were just handed the punch line for an easy recession-era attack ad. (To quote the Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, anticipating the 30-second spots to come: “He got a Nobel Prize. What did you get? A pink slip.”)

Overseas, there was nobody, from Paris to Peshawar, who woke up Friday more disposed to work with the United States because of the Nobel committee’s decision — and plenty of more seasoned statesman who woke up laughing. …

But by accepting the prize, he’s made failure, if and when it comes, that much more embarrassing and difficult to bear. What’s more, he’s etched in stone the phrase with which critics will dismiss his presidency.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.