PRESIDENT OBAMA struck the right note of humility yesterday when said of the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded, “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize.’’ Modesty aside, this was a tactful way of acknowledging something that ought to be evident to Americans and the rest of the world alike: Obama was honored not for any achievement in office but for setting a new American course in the world.
Seen in this way, the Nobel Committee’s praise of Obama for creating “a new climate in international politics’’ may be read as an exhortation to fulfill the hopes for peace he has inspired. It is one thing for Obama to embrace “the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play,’’ to favor “dialogue and negotiations,’’ and to propound “the vision of a world free from nuclear arms,’’ to quote from his Nobel citation. But it is another thing to actually bring about substantial reductions in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles; to roll back nuclear proliferation through negotiations with North Korea and Iran; and to persuade the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Instead of getting caught up in quarrels about whether the Peace Prize is justified, Obama’s fellow politicians would do well to reflect on what he and they must do to endow the award with an after-the-fact justification. An immediate challenge that should be met in this spirit is the climate-change conference this December in Copenhagen. Obama ought to be able to go there with US commitments to reduce carbon emissions that are serious enough to put pressure on China and India to follow suit.
If there is one peacemaking mission that much of the world wants Obama to pursue resolutely, it is to shepherd Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations that produce a resolution of their conflict based on two secure, independent states. This is the sort of achievement the Nobel Committee no doubt hoped to presage by honoring Obama’s good intentions. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will require considerable international cooperation, but it will not be possible without the active, stubborn involvement of the US president.
Whether or not the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Obama prematurely, global awareness of the award can translate into a valuable American asset. Hard-headed leaders in Tehran, Moscow, or Pyongyang will not suddenly do Obama’s bidding simply because he has been praised by a committee of dignitaries in Oslo. But this Peace Prize carries a message for those leaders and their publics. It says that instead of being outside an international consensus, the United States today stands at the center of that consensus. The announcement from Oslo has enhanced American soft power. We hope Obama will earn his prize by making the most of that soft power.