The Nobel Peace Prize is only rarely given to someone who has actually made peace. The first one, given in 1901 to the founder of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (which never does anything, but still exists) and the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross (which does a great deal). Among the other winners were Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela (shared with that great peacemaker F.W. DeKlerk), Jane Addams, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu. Woodrow Wilson was given the prize after dragging the U.S.A. into the First World War, in the hope that his League of Nations would end war. Theodore Roosevelt won it for actually brokering a peace treaty between Russia and Japan. But mostly it is given as an aspirational award, recognizing less a person than that person’s ideas about how a peaceful world could be created. The committee gives it “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.” So it has always gone to hopers and dreamers.
Both the right and left are apoplectic about Barack Obama’s winning of the award: the right because they wake up every morning and sniff about for something new to hate him for, and the left because he hasn’t ended human suffering in the past ten months. Each side misses the point: Obama won because he represents an idea–that the United States of America cannot and must not act as if it is the only power on earth. That alone gave the committee sufficient reason to endorse his young and as yet unproven agenda.
The award, given during a week in which the dogs of war are gathered at the White House to figure out how to extricate America from the quagmire of Afghanistan, has less a sense of irony than a sense of hope. If Obama is successful, Afghans can decide if they want to live in under a democratic government or not. If he is successful, Iran will rejoin the civilized world, North Korea will not longer be a thugocracy and Iraq can figure out if it should be one or three nations. If he is successful, the world can breathe a little easier and go back to working on the big problems facing the us: the elimination of extreme poverty and establishment of human rights globally.
The Nobel Prize was not just given to Barak Obama, it was given to the United States of America, not because of what we have done, but because of what the world hopes we can do. We are finally back at the place where much of the rest of the world looks to us once again for leadership. What kind of leadership we give is up to us.
Se let us be grateful for this American moment. It matters, for us and for all humanity.