Friday, October 9, 2009

Better Choices than Obama for the Peace Prize

I am no great fan of Pres. Obama, but I voted for him, and I'm no great opponent of his either (except maybe of his backing of Geithner). But I was floored and dismayed by the Nobel Peace Prize Committees choice of Obama for the 2009 prize. What great accomplishment or body of work can he point to for the promotion of world peace? Has he ended the War in Iraq yet? Nope. Afghanistan? Nope. Made some important breakthrough in nuclear disarmament? Nope. Help brokered peace in a troubled land using his diplomatic muscles? Nope.

Here's the AP's version of the committee's side
"The Norwegian Nobel Committee countered that it was trying "to promote what he stands for and the positive processes that have started now." It lauded the change in global mood wrought by Obama's calls for peace and cooperation, and praised his pledges to reduce the world stock of nuclear arms, ease American conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthen the U.S. role in combating climate change.

The peace prize was created partly to encourage ongoing peace efforts but Obama's efforts are at far earlier stages than past winners'. The Nobel committee acknowledged that they may not bear fruit at all.

"He got the prize because he has been able to change the international climate," Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said. "Some people say, and I understand it, isn't it premature? Too early? Well, I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond — all of us."

So essentially their rationale is that he has started processes that they approve of even if they are only just begun. Now I strongly object to using the Peace Prize as an encouragement beforehand, rather than a recognition for long work. IF Obama's efforts turn out to be fruitful peacemaking, maybe he will deserve the prize some day, but he does not deserve it yet. Sharon Astyk, one of my heroes and favorite interlocutors makes the point more forcefully over at her blog. I then asked what should the committee have done instead, and here is my own preliminary thoughts on 6 choices the Nobel Peace Prize committee could have made, that would be better than Obama

1) Award No Prize This Year - This has been done many times in the past. 1972, 1955-6, 1948, 1939-43, 1923-24, 1914-16 all lacked a Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes this is because the world was at war and peace was far away, like in 1939-43, or 1914-6. But sometimes like 1948 or 1972 it was simply because no single person or organization stood out as especially worthy. If Obama's fragile, early, tentative record of peacemaking was the best the committee could find, then no award should have been given this year.

2) Give the prize to an organization that has received it before but continued to do good work - The Red Cross/Red Crescent has been awarded the prize 3 times already (in 1917, 1944, and 1963), but they have continued to do go work since 1963, and could certainly be awarded the prize again. Or give it to UNICEF, or Amnesty International, both of whom have received it before but not for decades.

3) The International Olympics Committee - The IOC stands out as one of the great international peacemaking organizations that has never received the prize. They have worked for decades to provide a non-violent venue for international competitions while promoting cooperation, global unity, cultural exchange, and peace.

4)Wendell Berry - If the Nobel committee really wanted to give the prize to an American, Wendell Berry would have been a better choice than Obama. He has a lifetime of influential peacemaking, and has done more on the specific issue of bringing global warming to the American consciousness than Obama. If they really wanted a Black American, even Van Jones would have been a better choice than Obama.

5) Some person or organization actually involved in ending wars - The Conflict in Darfur ended in 2009, and by Feb 1 it was pretty clearly wrapping up. Many groups could have been given the nod for peacemaking in Darfur including UNAMID or Save Darfur Coalition, or even The International Criminal Court. Similarly the Kivu War between Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and the Somalian Civil War, both had real peace makers, and some hope of real progress during 2009, and either could have been given the nod. Or the committee could have looked to the South Ossetian conflict of 2008 between Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, and given the prize to French EU president Bernard Kouchner, for successfully mediating the ceasefire, and brokering the peace.

6) Do something edgier - They could have picked one of the groups working on international water disputes, a topic they've never covered before; or an agriculturalist like Vandana Shiva or Slow Food, which they haven't picked in a long time, or a aboriginal rights groups, or the International Criminal Court, or some journalist (they haven't given it to a journalist since 1935), etc.


  1. Good idea to list other candidates. I like # 6, but disagree on IOC - the Olympics consistently turn out to be terrible for the lower socioeconomic groups who tend to be displaced by the preparations, e.g. affordable housing removed and upmarket accomodation put in in place for the events and later sold to investors. I expect the poor favelas of Rio de Janeiro will not enjoy the police persecutions they may be facing ahead of the event in 2016. Of course, that is not necessarily the fault of the IOC...

  2. The Olympics is a mixed bag for the city and country that hosts it, I'm willing to agree, helping some and hurting others, especially the poor and displaced. But that wasn't my argument. The Olympics is a VERY good thing for the cause of world peace. It helps to create a culture of peace. It helps to provide venues for international competition of a non-violent nature, it helps expose the world to the culture of other parts of the world. Peacemaking has a political, diplomatic, and economic aspects, but it also has cultural aspects, and those have been downplayed by the Nobel Committee over the years. For example, when was the last time the prize was given to an artist for the work of peace? Elie Wiesel in 1986, Schweitzer in 1952, and Osseitzky in 1935 are the only examples I can find