Let me begin with the question on everyone’s mind: did Obama deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?
That’s not a question political science can answer. Or at least I can’t (other political scientists may feel otherwise.) But in considering the unanimous decision by the five Norwegian committee members to award the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, I think two points have been underplayed. First, most discussions have centered on the domestic reaction to the announcement, and the complications accepting the award may pose for the President. This has led to much media speculation regarding the Committee’s motive in giving Obama the award, with many pundits arguing that rather than a reward for any accomplishment toward a more peaceful world, it is meant instead to pressure Obama into moving more quickly to embrace the more internationalist foreign policy approach he promised in the presidential campaign. From this respect, the award is as much a rebuke of the Bush foreign policy as it is a reminder to Obama that he is expected to repudiate his predecessor’s unilateral approach to conducting foreign affairs. I think there’s much truth to that argument. In fact, I would put it more directly. The Nobel Prize Committee is trying to influence Obama as he grapples with the most difficult decision facing his presidency to date: how to deal with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. His administration is clearly divided on this issue, and both sides have skillfully leaked policy proposals designed to swing political support behind their preferred course of actions. Obama has hinted that he may try to split the difference between the Biden withdrawal wing and the Gates double-down supporters (story here) – a choice consistent with his pragmatic tendencies, but one that I believe is the worst possible option (I’ll issue a separate post on why I believe this to be the case.)
And yet, I think we ought not to reject the Committee’s ostensible reason for giving Obama the prize – that it is a reward for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” (full statement here). Because of the way the national media works, we tend to view the Obama presidency through a domestic prism. From this perspective, Obama’s foreign policy appears so far to have largely continued the Bush approach on everything from the use of state secrets to secret renditions to military commissions to domestic eavesdropping. Even in areas where he has explicitly repudiated Bush-era policies – closing Guantanamo Bay and establishing limits on the use of some interrogation techniques – the differences have been more symbolic than real. I’ve addressed this point before, and explained why Obama – despite his campaign rhetoric to the contrary – was never likely to veer very far substantively from Bush’s conduct of the War on Terror.
But if one gets outside the White House media bubble and begins to look at Obama from an international perspective, the differences with the Bush administration are a bit more tangible. Polls suggest that Obama’s – and the United States’ – standing abroad has improved, a feeling that is shared by many foreign policy leaders. For example, consider data from this compilation of Gallup polls comparing Bush and Obama-era surveys on perceptions of U.S. leadership:
And these polls don’t include European countries that have, to date, shown enthusiastic support for Obama’s presidency. Yes, this is more a reflection of hope and the prospect of what Obama may accomplish than it is of any specific substantive progress. And it may yet dissipate. But it is a real difference, and I think the Nobel prize is at least partly an acknowledgment of that difference. Obama has made a positive impact abroad in how people view the United States. Is that difference worthy of a Nobel Prize? I’ll let you judge.
This is not to discount the importance of domestic considerations. And it leads me to the second issue: How should Obama react to winning this award? Rejecting it was never a possibility – it would be bad form and would have its own damaging political repercussions. And Obama can certainly use the prize money as previous presidential recipients have done. Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter both donated their winnings to charitable causes. (Woodrow Wilson – worried about his shaky financial position – kept his in a bank to earn interest.) But there are ways of accepting the Prize while minimizing the potential political costs. In the media discussion regarding previous presidential recipients, what has gone unmentioned as far as I can see is that neither Roosevelt nor Wilson – the two previous sitting presidents who received the honor – accepted it in person. Theodore Roosevelt, who won the award in 1906 for mediating a resolution to the Russo-Japanese conflict, sent an envoy in his place (see here). Woodrow Wilson, who won in 1920 due to his efforts in 1919 to establish a League of Nations, was too sick to personally receive the award, and instead sent the U.S. minister to Norway to pick up the hardware (see here.) Both cases are somewhat instructive when it comes to advising Obama. In Wilson’s case the U.S. Senate had already rejected Wilson’s effort to get them to sign the Treaty of Versailles and to ratify membership in the League. Roosevelt, of course, is perhaps remembered more for wielding a “big stick” (see the U.S. role in creating both Panama and the Panama Canal) than for speaking “softly” when it came to foreign affairs. In neither case did the award seem to bolster the presidents’ domestic standing.
Come December, then, my advice is for Obama to decline to personally receive the award, and instead send an emissary. He will likely be knee deep in some policy crisis which will make for a convenient diplomatic cover story. But everyone will understand what he is signaling: the prize is nice, of course, but he’s calling his own foreign policy shots. If he takes my advice, who should go in his stead? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of course. Let her be the public face who is photographed receiving the award, and who has to make the public acceptance speech!
So, what’s your advice (with apologies to The Clash – see here): Should he go or should he stay?
ADDENDUM: The instant analysis I posted above ignores the issue of timing; if the Nobel Peace Prize committee made their choice of Obama say, 10 days after his inauguration as president, then it is obvious that it couldn’t be a deliberate attempt to influence the particulars of the current debate ignited by McChrystal’s request to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Someone with more expertise than I regarding the Nobel selection process should set me straight on this, if possible. But my broader point, I think, remains, although it may say more about the timing of the announcement than the choice itself: the Committee has an interest in shaping Obama’s foreign policy deliberations, and awarding him the prize should be seen, at least in part, as an effort to do so.
ADDENDUM TWO! So much for the importance of timing – somewhat belatedly, I realized that the announcement of the award (at least as far back as I can remember!) is always made about this time. So, I leave it to someone who knows to clarify for me exactly when these choices are made.