The complaint is that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize before making any peace. It comes at a time when he is waging war in Afghanistan and is in a showdown with Iran that already has military overtones.
Let’s look, then, at whether the prize will help Obama get results in his diplomatic efforts.
The award is a stamp of approval from the international community or, rather, from one part of it. Still, even the White House was surprised. Worldwide, even friends of the U.S. administration harped on the fact that Obama’s presidency is not yet a year old and has no “tangible results” to show, in the words of Turkish professor Soli Ozel.
The reaction from Iran was telling. Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a close adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said he was “not upset” about the award as long as Obama does “more to bring an end to global injustice.” There was no mention of the Islamic Republic’s contested nuclear program.
Indeed, the prize comes at a time when some people are wondering if U.S. foreign policy is falling apart. Obama’s soaring oratory in Prague and Cairo seems to have found little echo in the seemingly intractable problems in the Middle East, Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. And the rejection of Chicago as an Olympic site, though both the president and his wife traveled to Copenhagen to plead the Windy City’s case, added insult to injury. Looking at things this way, one has to say that the Nobel Prize is progress — a slap on the back rather than a slap in the face.
That is not much. Teddy Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for leading talks to end the Russo-Japanese war. Woodrow Wilson, the only other sitting U.S. president to win the prize, received it toward the end of his time in office. Wilson had already led the allies in defeating Germany in World War I and then tried to create a new world order with the League of Nations.
Obama, on the other hand, is in the first flush of writing himself into history. Will the Nobel Prize help him? Will it make him a more formidable negotiator? Will it convince his adversaries that the U.S. president now has the world at his back and that they had better watch out?
The short answer is a resounding no. People say the prize was given to Obama before he accomplished anything. The reality is that it was given to Obama for convincing the world that America is no longer a boogeyman. America was hated more widely under President George W. Bush. That has changed, even if conservatives in the United States charge that Obama has been too apologetic, too reluctant to be unabashed about American exceptionalism.
In any case, it’s done. In Prague, in Cairo, in sitting down to talk with the new Iranian government, despite charges of electoral fraud in the Islamic Republic, the United States is on a new course. Now what? The war in Afghanistan is going poorly. North Korea has pulled away from talks. And the Iranians are not about to change their tactics because of the peace prize.
The Iranian crisis is a good example of tentative progress from the Obama phenomenon, but the heavy lifting is still to come. The accomplishment for which Obama got the prize — his policies of engagement and multilateralism — can be credited with helping to lead to an incipient breakthrough. Iran has agreed — in principle — to ship out of the country most of the enriched uranium that raises fears that it seeks nuclear weapons. Some doubt that Iran will follow through with the agreement. Some say this is merely a feint and that Iran will gear up its enrichment production to make up for the uranium it is giving up. But others see Iran yielding a bit in order to parry the pressure it is under, both domestically and internationally.
Iran may be trying for breathing space against sanctions — or worse, from adversaries such as the United States and Israel. If the process stalls, Obama, the peace laureate, will be faced with the choice of either being tough, perhaps very tough, or letting Iran get the bomb. This, more than the prize, will determine his place in history.
Obama’s status as a Nobel laureate will not change the dynamic of the problems the president now faces. The Nobel committee did no more than recognize that there is a new push taking place. That push is Obama’s take on how to do foreign policy. So it is not surprising that the award becomes fodder for politics in the United States.
The bottom line is that the Nobel Prize doesn’t solve anything. That will be Obama’s job, and the work is yet to be done.
Michael Adler is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.