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Why Obama deserves it

12 Oct 2009 - 19:06
Clingendael CommentaryThe pundits are upset. The Peace Prize, they ask? But what has he accomplished? It's hard to see history when you're living it. Perhaps it's even harder in a 24 hour news cycle. Or perhaps we have all just grown too cynical to recognise Barack Obama's truly inspired leadership for what it is, let alone share his historic vision.

The Peace Prize isn't a life-time achievement award, and it can be an incentive to further positive action as much as an acknowledgement of concrete results. And yet there are four good reasons why granting him the award, even this early in his presidency, was warranted.

The first reason is that president Obama has been setting the world's most powerful nation back on the path to moral respectability, by renouncing the use of torture, by ordering the CIA 'black sites' closed, and by working to shut down the Guant√°namo Bay detention facility. One cannot lead if no one is willing to follow. These measures, along with a plan for a phased, responsible withdrawal from Iraq, were (and are) absolutely necessary steps for America's friends and allies to be able to once again accept American leadership - a necessary component of any successful system of global governance.

The second reason is that president Obama has recommitted the United States more broadly to multilateral cooperation and respect for international law, as symbolised by his December 2008 decision to re-elevate the position of Ambassador to the United Nations to cabinet rank. Multilateral diplomacy is back in the American lexicon. In the fight against climate change, nuclear proliferation, or even international terrorism, it is recognised that many nations besides the US are 'indispensable'. This new American internationalism may be driven by self-interest and it may be limited by it, as seen in the still-ambivalent support for the International Criminal Court. But it is noteworthy and laudable all the same.

The third reason is president Obama's essentially realist insight that international cooperation cannot be fixed along moral lines. For all its faults, Russia may be needed on the Iranian issue, and yes, a thaw in relations with Iran may be necessary to stabilise Iraq. In acting upon this insight, he is not just 'not being Bush'. He is going far beyond the traditional confines of US foreign policy, which for decades has responded to anti-Americanism with a counter-productive non-policy that has hurt both US interests as well as those of the world at large. By contrast, Obama's efforts to engage are making it much more difficult for his antagonists to fuel the anti-American sentiments their regimes thrive on. His special video message to the Iranian people extended a hand of friendship, while referring to the Islamic Republic of Iran by its official name - an implicit reversal of a 30-year old policy of non-recognition. And when he shook hands with Chavez on the summit of the Organisation of American States, his right-wing critics may have shook their heads, but that organisation's agreement to lift the 47-year old ban on Cuban membership greatly improved the chances for meaningful cooperation in Latin America. Tone and style do make a difference. Perceptions matter. And never more so in a world that is as interconnected as that of the 21st century.

The fourth and final reason, and one to which the Nobel Committee 'attached special importance', are the president's high-profile efforts to curb the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Up to less than a year ago, pundits openly worried about the prospect of 'a new Cold War', with the US pushing a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Russia threatening to retaliate by placing new tactical nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad. Obama, hitting the 'reset button', has brought back US-Russian relations from the lowest point they had been at since the end of the Cold War. In negotiating a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the two countries have already agreed to cut their wasteful and dangerous nuclear arsenals by as much as a third.

The Obama administration has also demonstrated commitment to non-proliferation by cutting funding for a new generation of nuclear warheads and vowing to work 'aggressively' to get the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty. Remarkable also is the broad 'bargain' outlined in the president's April 5 speech in Prague, that was recently enshrined in the unanimous 1887 UNSC resolution 'to ban nuclear weapons'. It should be no surprise that fellow laureate Mohamed El-Baradei was among the most enthusiastic supporters of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee's decision.

Although his policies are grounded in reality, Obama is trying to show that reality, for an American president who is willing to lead, isn't fixed. This is why he deserves the award. Domestically, it may hurt him more than help him. But where he tries to inspire a vision for moving the beacons of US foreign policy, let us not reject him out of hand.

Nils De Mooij is a Fellow in the Clingendael Institute's Diplomatic Studies Programme.