Perceptions Meaningful Messages: Barack Obama’s Unexpected Nobel

Last week, something unusual happened in Washington, D.C.: President Obama was at a loss for words. Actually, a lot of the D.C. establishment failed miserably in the rapid-response department, all thanks to Nobel Prize Committee Chair Thorbjoern Jagland. Jagland managed to throw everyone for a loop by thoughtfully bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize on Barack Obama as the latter slept, blissfully unaware that his day was about to become unusual, even by presidential standards. When Obama finally found out about the prize, he did not exactly look like the world’s happiest man; his brief acceptance remarks in the Rose Garden were jerky, uncomfortable, and—perhaps because of the sheer rarity of Obama’s remarks falling under either of these two categories—oddly endearing. “To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize,” said the President, stating the obvious. One could almost feel Nelson Mandela (28 years in a South African prison under apartheid) Elie Wiesel (of Auschwitz-Birkenau fame) and other past recipients gently nod in agreement. One of this year’s likely winners was Morgan Tsvangirai, who lost his wife in a suspicious car accident while he ran against Zimbabwe’s autocrat, Robert Mugabe. It is a little hard to compete with that, even when you are Barack Obama. Actually, the very breadth of past laureates’ accomplishments puts the notably inexperienced Obama in an uncomfortable position, since, as laureate Lech Walesa of Poland candidly noted, “What has he done yet?”Concretely speaking, not much, but then again, that was not really the point of the award. The Nobel Committee admitted in its statement that it was not honoring Obama the actor but Obama the inspirer for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” In other words, thank-you for not being George W. Bush.Speaking of W. brings us inevitably to the GOP, which did not join the rest of Washington in its state of bemused speechlessness. As RNC Chair Michael Steele said, “It is unfortunate that the President’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights.” Unusually enough, Steele made a valid point and, even more unusually, a number of figures on the Left agreed with him; Glen Greenwald compared the news to “some kind of bizarre Onion gag that got accidentally transposed onto the wrong website.”If the Nobel Peace Prize gives the Right a chance to attack Obama the rock-star, then it gives the progressive Left an opportunity to emphasize how far their hero is from delivering his promises. After all, the President’s next order of business last Friday was a confidential briefing on whether to ramp up troop levels in Afghanistan, one of two wars he is currently managing. This lends a whole new meaning to the term “cognitive dissonance” and helps explain why Obama may have been less than ecstatic at the news of his prize.One group that has little to complain about is the Nobel Prize Committee, which managed in a single day both to render Americans speechless and to give us a subtle reminder of what, in its opinion, constitutes effective international relations. How often does Europe get the chance to even suggest policy to the United States? Since around 1875, opportunities have been rare. Overall, this must have been a refreshing change of pace for everyone on the continent.Yet, for all the irony, discomfort, and, yes, unfairness coating the Nobel Prize episode, Americans can learn a lot from the committee’s choice. There is a tendency in the United States, even among the progressive Left—which often looks to its counterparts in Europe with not a little bit of envy—to dismiss Europe as a viable force whose strength was spent in the 20th century and whose marginalization, facilitated by the rise of the Asian giants, is continuing into the 21st. Europe responds with weary, resigned distaste for the United States model of rugged individualism and exceptionalist rhetoric.What all of this obscures is how much we have in common, which is a continuing, deeply-rooted concern for human rights, dignities, and freedoms. Sure, we don’t like the welfare state as much as the Europeans do, but we both agree on the basic need to help those that society has left behind. Yes, we differ on an operational level as to which voices are represented—European socialists are accepted, while in America they are mute and unrepresented in legislature—but we agree that governmental legitimacy and minority representation are important. In a world where governments committed to representing the people and upholding the law are spotty and struggling, America and Europe are consistent models for a stable system of governance based on the welfare of human beings. Simply put, when the globe is filled with Ahmadinejads and Putins, having friends on the issues that truly matter is important. Last week, the Nobel Committee sent a clear message about what kind of democratic leadership it values. Europe loves Barack Obama not only because he is not George W. Bush but also because he represents everything Europeans most admire: compassion and concern for the less fortunate, inclusive rhetoric, and, most obviously, a less martial inclination than the last administration. Americans needn’t agree completely with these values, but we should wait before we dismiss the gesture, because that isn’t what friends—and allies—do.

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