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Why Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize

By Tony Kevin - posted Friday, 16 October 2009

The Nobel Peace Prize award to Barack Obama has provoked widely diverse reactions. I noted in Australia appropriate polite congratulations from Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, but jarringly rude mockery from Alexander Downer.

Internationally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel applauded the award, saying: “Obama has set a new tone in the world”. Former prize-winners the Dalai Lama and Shimon Peres were also pleased.

On the other hand, there were bitter denunciations from the Taliban, obviously. The Republican Right, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, Foxnews and the Wall Street Journal opposed the award, arguing that Obama hadn't achieved anything to deserve it: it was a prize for mere aspiration. In Israel, there was cynicism from all sides.


Yet the Norwegian Nobel committee explained its rationale clearly. Obama has done more this year for world peace than any other possible contender:

… through his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples ... Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position ... Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts ... Obama [has] captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future.

I can comfortably support all these arguments. For comparable reasons, US Time Magazine nine months ago made Obama their Person of the Year.

So why in the US Republican Right does Obama remain a polarising figure of hate and derision? He is anathema to the Right, precisely because he rejects the idea of the US imposing its interests, views and values on the world by superior force.

The Right's argument that Obama hasn't achieved anything yet is essentially a smokescreen for their bile at knowing that Obama got this international award precisely because, truly, he is “not Bush” - that Obama has launched an international healing, after the great damage worked by his predecessor. These critics cannot bear the world's relief and thanks that Obama is not Bush. This humiliates them, and they are rationalising their rage.

There are areas of concrete peacemaking achievement already. In US-Russian relations, the provocative NATO missile shield project in Central Europe has been cancelled, the Georgian adventure set to rest, and the Russian government has visibly warmed to the West in response. Nuclear disarmament negotiations are moving again.


On the other great world security crisis - disruptive climate change - China's President Hu Jintao dramatically pledged in the US last month to cut China's carbon dioxide emissions relative to GDP by a notable margin. I believe China's rapid move to the forefront of international climate negotiations was encouraged by purposeful high-level US bilateral diplomacy this year.

In the Middle East, at least the cruel Israeli bombardment and blockading of Gaza has ceased.

Even on the world's “small” security crises - not small for people suffering from them - the Obama style of extending a hand of friendship to the clenched fist of adversaries is reaping rewards. Following the US decision to re-engage with Burma's military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi is again playing a more active political role in the search for a political settlement there. These things are connected.

In diplomacy, the distinction between words and action, aspiration and achievement, is subtle - too subtle for some. If well-chosen inspirational language (like Obama's highly symbolic and allusive speech in Cairo, directed to the Arab world) improves the climate of negotiation in long-standing angry disputes, this is an achievement in itself. I find the claim that Obama hasn't achieved anything yet in international peacemaking a caricature of reality. He has already achieved much, and he brings hope for more.

At another level, what do Papal Encyclicals achieve? Does their moral guidance actually make anyone do anything? Yet no reasonable person could argue that Papal Encyclicals don't have impact. To exhort to good action, to speak a credible language of moral inspiration and hope to the world, is an achievement in itself. Thank goodness we have an American President who is prepared to do so - and to try to back up these aspirations with US assets, appropriately deployed.

Afghanistan remains my biggest problem with Obama. I grieve the pointless sacrifice of the lives of Afghanis and the intervention forces. I pray that Obama is preparing an honourable exit strategy, which will have to bring Taliban elements into government; that he will find a way through his Afghanistan dilemma, and quickly.

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First published in on October 14, 2009.
Tony Kevin will discuss his latest book Crunch Time (reviewed here), on the global climate crisis, with ABC economist Stephen Long at Gleebooks in Sydney on October 21, and with Robert Manne at Readings, Carlton in Melbourne on October 26.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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