Did He Deserve It? Obama, the Clash and the Nobel Peace Prize

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.


  1. Absolutely he should go! If John McCain can say this a great honor for the US President and more broadly, the United States, then it would be bad form and counter-productive at best to send an emissary. The five members of the Nobel Committee felt the American President was deserving – for whatever reasons- and that’s all that matters. If the award was given to Obama because he is the anti-Bush (as was done with former President Carter in 2002), then so much the better. For Mr. Obama to be self-effacing and humble in accepting the award, he exemplifies traits most Anericans aspire to. America has been subject to far too much world condemnation in recent years. To now receive some international praise, we should not run or hide from it.

  2. Matt, As long as we are into bipartisanship, I think he should send McCain to accept the award.

    Of course, McCain may be just as busy as the President, so he might send Sarah in his stead.

  3. Matt, here is the selection process. The recipient is decided upon in September.

    How are Laureates selected?

    At the first meeting of the Nobel Committee after the February 1 deadline for nominations, the Committee’s Permanent Secretary presents the list of the year’s candidates. The Committee may on that occasion add further names to the list, after which the nomination process is closed, and discussion of the particular candidates begins. In the light of this first review, the Committee draws up the so-called short list – i.e. the list of candidates selected for more thorough consideration. The short list typically contains from five to twenty candidates.

    The candidates on the short list are then considered by the Nobel Institute’s permanent advisers. In addition to the Institute’s Director and Research Director, the body of advisers generally consists of a small group of Norwegian university professors with broad expertise in subject areas with a bearing on the Peace Prize. The advisers usually have a couple of months in which to draw up their reports. Reports are also occasionally requested from other Norwegian and foreign experts.

    When the advisers’ reports have been presented, the Nobel Committee embarks on a thorough-going discussion of the most likely candidates. In the process, a need sometimes arises to obtain additional information and updating from the group of advisers, especially if any of the nominees are involved in current political affairs. The Committee has as a rule reached its conclusion by mid-September, but has been known not to arrive at a decision until at its very last meeting before the announcement of the Prize at the beginning of October.

    The Committee seeks to achieve unanimity in its selection of the Peace Prize Laureate. On the rare occasions when this proves impossible, the selection is decided by a simple majority vote.


  4. Thanks, Martin. (I knew someone out there would have this information.) So this is consistent with my initial supposition that this is a direct effort to nudge Obama in a specific direction on the Afghanistan decision in particular, and the War on Terror (no longer identified as such, of course) more generally.

  5. Professor Dickinson,

    A large important vote in the Senate today, and it saw a MAINE Senator move against party lines. Guess thats not a suprise as the Maine Senators traditionally are a bit more moderate (if i recall correctly from graphs I’ve seen some time ago). But I wanted to ask about about a Senate procedure called “reconciliation.” I thought I’d taken enough American Political science courses to have run across this term before. Could you explain what it is, the consequences of using it in the health care debate, and lastly comment on your opinion if it will be used.



  6. Back to the topic of Laureates–I’m just a bit sorry that you so swiftly ruled out the option of Obama saying ‘thanks but no thanks’ to this prize. Not really in the same league, but consider when Jon Snow was awarded an OBE. (Snow is the UK’s counterpart, in the next generation, to Walter Cronkite in the US–for those who, God forbid, don’t remember Cronkite, he was recurrently voted ‘most trusted American’ as the CBS news anchorman who for years reported intelligently and independently, including on the Vietnam war.) Snow turned down the award, and proceeded to do a wonderful piece of investigative journalism into how the Honours System really works (old boys network; etc, etc.) Okay I know it’s not the same. For one thing, Obama is in the role of President not journalist. Still, if there’s anyone who could’ve turned this dance down with elegance, he’s the man. And he’s getting punished, anyway:”Obama’s War,” reads the cover of the latest Economist. Poor guy. As if he didn’t already have enough projections to deal with, without this latest ‘prize’. Anyway, I thought it worth a moment just to contemplate how he might have gone about saying No…

    In any case, Matt, along with your interpretation of what motivated the Committee in their decision, is there not also the implication that this might have been a particularly weak year for Peace Prize candidates?


  7. Chris – Explaining reconciliation deserves (and would require) a separate post, and I will devote on to it, in the context of the health care debate.

    Beth – I confess that I still believe the fallout from rejecting the Nobel peace prize outright – no matter how eloquently stated – would have been greater than the grief Obama has received to date for accepting the award, particularly since he always has the option of donating the monetary prize to a charity. As you note, Snow – as a journalist – doesn’t face quite the same predicament; in rejecting his award, he speaks mostly for his own independence and strikes a blow for journalistic integrity. Obama, like it or not, is also a symbol of the United States (lacking a royal family, presidents are all we have!) and as such has to think about the implications for “national prestige”, for want of a better word, in rejecting a rather public award. Reasonable people can disagree, but I think he probably took the least objectionable route in accepting the award while downplaying his credentials. I still think he can help himself politically by sending someone in his stead to actually receive the award.

    As for the candidate pool – I don’t know who else was on the list of the more than 200 nominees for the award, but I don’t doubt that many were more deserving than Obama. Given the varying qualifications of past recipients, however, I find it difficult to say with any certainty that this year’s pool was less deep than previous years’. But who knows? Was Arafat a more qualified recipient? Kissinger? In short, history suggests it’s difficult to judge the depth of the talent pool by looking at who actually gets selected.

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