Peace Prize or Albatross?

Alfred Nobel’s will states that the Peace prize must go to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

Do I think President Obama has done the most or even his best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses? I certainly don’t think so. But I do know that 172 individuals and 33 organizations were nominated for the prize in 2009. We won’t know who they were until I am 92 years old, at which point I doubt I would even remember or care about the meaning of a Nobel Peace prize.

For now the Norwegian committee determined President Obama to be the candidate that trumped all the other nominees. I am not as aware of every world event as I should be, however I can’t think of any other world leader who has done the “best work” for fraternity between nations – Putin, Sarkozy, Manmohan Singh, Wen Jiabao, Kim Jong Il, Gordon Brown, Benjamin Netanyahu, Berlusconi? No, not a single world leader comes to mind.

People who are not in a “world leadership” position perhaps. I can think of several selfless individuals who are engaged in working tirelessly for making this planet a better place, a safer place, through their words, their actions their daily sacrifices. Do I think they deserve Nobel recognition? Absolutely.

But perhaps those Norwegians couldn’t define these unquestionably peaceful actions as actions that were furthering fraternity between nations. Or did a sufficient number of nominations fail to come in for many of these individuals? We won’t know until I am 92.

Then there’s the matter of abolition or reduction of standing armies. Again, I can’t think of any world leader whose efforts have resulted in the abolition or reduction of standing armies. President Obama did schedule troop withdrawal from Iraq and is on the cusp of making a decision about Afghanistan. Perhaps, if he had decided to send in more troops into Afghanistan (there’s certainly a case to be made for it) it would have knocked him out of consideration.

Has he done enough for the holding and promotion of peace congresses? Not nearly enough in his 9 month long presidency. His stance at the summits he has attended has been refreshingly different in its consensus building tone, its stress on rationality and the desire to find common ground. His rhetoric has signaled a welcome change in tone compared to his predecessor. But there would have been more evidence of this and perhaps some tangible and concrete results by the year 2012.
My vote went to him so I am hopeful of seeing these results. Have I seen them yet? No.

So should he have been given this prize? The determination of who gets this prize is not a democratic one. The world population, the “tweeters” don’t get a vote. It rests in the hands of a Norwegian committee and is bound by the words of Alfred Nobel’s will. People have a right to question the soundness of the committee’s judgment and express outraged opinions on every social networking forum there is. They can make jokes about it. RNC chairman, Michael Steele, can send me spam mail where he claims that the President received the award for “awesomeness” (I didn’t read anymore so don’t know what else it said), after all we are in this age of non-stop chatter, tweets and pointless expressions of rage at why our will wasn’t done. But that’s what it all is: pointless.

The President accepted the award as a humbling call to action and I have no doubt in my mind that he sees it as a somber rather than an ecstatic marker in his rather eventful life.

The committee has in the past had the good sense to reject the nominations of Stalin and Mussolini. I am sure they would have rejected Adolf Hitler if the person nominating him hadn’t withdrawn the nomination in early 1939.

They were also strangely and inexplicably reluctant to give the prize to Mahatma Gandhi who was nominated several times. He certainly deserved it on all counts. We won’t know who President Obama’s fellow nominees were until we’re too old or dead to care.

During World War I and II the committee decided not to award this prize, a decision one understands when one reads what Alfred Nobel’s will dictated. Perhaps they should have done the same in 2009. We don’t even have the slightest hint of peace on earth. At best, the desire for it is a well worn cliché mouthed by beauty show contestants or a fond wish expressed in Christmas carols. We have heinous acts of abuse, genocide, crimes against women, eternal blood soaked conflicts in the Middle East and strife and hell on earth everywhere we turn. The need for power drives and motivates more people than the need for peace.

There’s no doubt in my mind that there are pockets of selfless individuals in every country, working tirelessly for the holy grail of world peace. The best thing the outraged social and traditional media voices can do is find these people and nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010, 2011, 2012…

For now, I just feel a tremendous sense of sadness for Barack Obama. His young presidency is carrying a tremendous weight of expectations not just from the people of his own country but the world. I don’t think this is the expression of an American centric viewpoint. People have pinned their hopes and expectations on Barack Obama. So much so that they even expected the results of his swearing in to yield instantaneous results, almost as if he had a magic wand.

How does a cynical generation like ours end up believing in the existence of a magic wand? He doesn’t have a lightning bolt scar on his forehead! Let’s go back to being cynical, folks, and let him steer this ship to the best of his abilities.

I say “ship” because in many ways he reminds me Coleridge’s ancient mariner who has an albatross around his neck. Just like the albatross’s initial welcome, the Nobel is welcome. It has the tremendous capacity to guide every action that this commander in chief initiates, every bill he signs and every word he speaks. It has the capacity to serve as a filter. Will it give him pause every time he is poised at the brink of US initiated military action in any part of the world? Will it color his judgment about global collaboration on environmental concerns? Will it urge him to make his leadership on these matters more meaningful? It most certainly will. Or at least, the people who elected him, just like the people who gave him this prize believe it will.

Should the Nobel Peace Prize committee hand out prizes because they are “hopeful” of peace? I cannot second guess their motives but I like being a hopeful rather than hopeless citizen of the world.

If the president fails to live up to these expectations, then that would be analogous to the ancient mariner’s shooting of the albatross and the dead one ending up around his neck. Can one man handle this weight? Will he pass the test of time?


  1. hear hear!

  2. I wish I could write like this and express my views so beautifully. Wonderful writing.

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