10.10.2009 | A Nobel gesture

The last time a sitting president won a Nobel prize was 90 years ago. Woodrow Wilson won in 1919 at a time when America was rising on the world stage to end a bitter global conflict. His Fourteen Points, especially "peace without victory," set forth the principles that would allow America to carry out the Marshall Plan post-WWII, in sharp contrast to the steep reparations that were levied on Germany for World War I.

Now in 2009, as another president who rocketed to prominence on the world stage seeks to bring the world together after a divisive period, the principal question being debated in the media is what President Obama did to deserve the prize—as if he needed to have fielded an army in Europe or negotiated a groundbreaking treaty to deserve the award. The committee's critics charge that the prize is politically motivated, a cheap shot at the outgoing president, with the nomination having been completed only two weeks after the president was elected.

Tommy De Seno of Fox News put it thusly: How to Win the Nobel Peace Prize In 12 Days. (Mercifully, an editor's note at the beginning explains that the selection process takes a year.) Seen on an Internet forum, one commentator noted, “All you really have to do to qualify as a world-renowned humanitarian is to replace George Bush in office.”

Surprise and sarcasm over, it's time to figure out why the Nobel committee would have made the decision it did. I'm going to operate on the assumption that—understanding that it might face charges of politicization—the committee nevertheless believed that its selection would fulfill its founder's mission of promoting peace. Alfred Nobel, inventor of trinitrotoluene (TNT, or dynamite)—a mild explosive by today's standards—created the foundation that awards the prizes that bear his name as a matter of regret for having brought such a weapon of war to the world. Robert Oppenheimer, inventor of the nuclear weapon, died with similar regrets.

So the key fact that's been missing from the discussion over Obama's meriting the prize, the one that has been sorely overlooked, the one that makes the award completely consistent with the committee's founding principles and aims, is Obama's tireless work toward nuclear disarmament. Not only did he dismantle the Bush-era missile defense system that restarted a nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia and partially led to a war in Georgia last summer, but as Senator he worked to pass nonproliferation legislation. Beyond nonproliferation, Obama's explicitly stated goal of zero nuclear arms (nuclear disarmament) creates a bold new framework for agreement as U.S. and Russia enter negotiations on the START I missile reduction treaty that is shortly coming up for renewal. (Obama's predecessor, by contrast, withdrew from the START II treaty agreed in 1997 that explicitly banned missile defense systems.)

So we come to the supposed "cheap shot"—which I would argue, far from cheap, is both a politically and historically important message key to the promotion of peace in the 21st century. Perhaps because of the politically charged nature of the debate, this historical perspective has been most sorely missing from the media coverage of Obama's win.

The doctrine of unilateral preemption espoused by Obama's predecessor represented the most significant threat to international stability since World War II. By taking the bold political stand that the committee has done, it has fulfilled its mission to promote world peace by ensuring that policy does not stand without repudiation. Without that repudiation, it would have stood as valid precedent, a green light with strong temptation for future presidents to repeat.

While it's too early in Obama's term to know what he will or won't accomplish, and we can't know if a peace prize will be enough to stop future presidents with an itchy trigger finger, we can know what the award was trying to do. In response to a policy of pre-emptive war, we have an act of pre-emptive peace—an attempt to help Obama politically in the moment to restore diplomacy as a primary means of resolving international disagreement, and a message to future presidents that this is the right way to go about things.

As ridiculous as it might have been to award Obama with a peace prize less than a year into office, the only thing more ridiculous would be to repeat the eight years of foreign policy that preceded him. And that's a prize-worthy statement.

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