The Nobel Prize Committee's Bold Call

Posted on 12. Oct, 2009 by in Uncategorized

Obama didn’t ask for the Nobel Peace Prize, and the real nominating party will not be revealed for another fifty years under the rules for the competition. On its face it seems extraordinary, even unique, to have a statesman win the prize before he has achieved anything in either the areas of statecraft or peace. Critics of Obama’s award will be able to point to the men and women who have come before, like Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter — statesmen who tried and succeeded in brokering enduring peace agreements. These critics will say that Mandela won the award not for brave speeches but for ending Apartheid.

But while the list of Nobel Laureates includes Mandela, it also includes Arafat and Rabin, who won the prize for their role in brokering the Oslo Accords. Sixteen bloody years later, the notion might seem quaint, but in 1993 the committee was trying to support a work in progress and pushfor the continuation of what, even in the best case scenario, was going to be a tough process. “It is the Committee’s hope that the award will serve as an encouragement to all the Israelis and Palestinians who are endeavouring to establish lasting peace in the region.”

The committee was trying to build political momentum for the process by giving this honor.

Even Nelson Mandela, and lets not forget Frederik Willem de Klerk, were not at the finish line when the award was granted. It was 1993 and while Apartheid had already ended, perhaps the event most fraught with danger still remained: the elections that would lead to Nelson Madela stepping into power. The United Nations sent over 2,000 observers recognizing that the future stability of the state hinged on all parties allowing a clean, violence free poll.

The committee could have waited for the elections. All the players still had the potential to unleash armed violence and break up a still fragile treaty. If the purpose of Nobel Prizes was only to award accomplishments, it would have made much more sense to wait until Mandela and de Klerk delivered a safe election.

But the committee’s intention was not just to reward a process, but also to encourage an outcome.

Nelson Mandela
Frederick de Klerk
Yasir Arafat

When viewed this way, the Peace Prize becomes a more courageous award. Rather than some lifetime achievement award, a banal trophy lining the shelves of a retired politician whose real contributions are long past, the Nobel Prize Committee is making bets, egging on the horses that it wants to see cross the finish line.

On Obama’s first day in office, he committed to closing Guantanamo Bay, within several weeks he said he would end the practice of torturing detainees. He has committed to rebuilding the UN, an organization of tremendous importance, that has been left in tatters, not only because of the Bush years, but also because of its own shortcomings. Obama has started to wrap his hands around climate change, nuclear disarmament and the Israel-Palestine conflict. And he has set out to chase these goals with the help of both America’s friends and rivals.

To date he has accomplished none of this. But if the Nobel Prize were to be awarded only to those who have accomplished peace, it would go to no one. Peace is not a state of being but a process. And the committee has decided to support a leader who has already wagered his legacy on trying to leave that process further along then where he found it.

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