October 12, 2009

The announcement that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace took many people by surprise. Note that Obama was given this award on February 1, 2009, eleven days after he had acceded to the office of president. At the time he had done nothing significant to promote world peace, and one would be stumped to find anything noteworthy that he has done since to achieve that goal. Those who believe that the Norwegian prize committee, the group that made the choice, was also making a statement about Obama’s predecessor are right. For all I know, the committee may also have been celebrating the election of a non-white president, as a conciliatory gesture toward the Third World.

What seems the emerging consensus, and particularly among all the Bush-fans on FOX-news, is that the committee was showing its leftist, anti-Republican, and anti-American character by giving Obama the award when it did. There is another complaint being directed against the Nobel Prize jury. The committee has been predictably ideological for decades, even if it sometimes does the unexpected, as when the Swedish Academy awarded this year’s prize for literature to Herta Müller, a Rumanian-German author who has criticized Communist tyranny.

But the Swedish Academy, which confers the literary award, had given the same prize in 2004 to a Austrian feminist, Elfriede Jelinek. This Austrian recipient made a name for herself writing on the Holocaust, which she blamed on a Christian sexist Europe. She became world-renowned due her sadomasochistic novel The Piano Teacher. And before Jelinek there was a gaggle of Third World and European Marxists scribblers of little note (try the Italian Communist poet Salvatore Quasimodo!) whom the Swedish Academy honored (though admittedly it has also occasionally rewarded genuine men of letters by way of the distinguished Indian novelist V. S. Naipaul.) Most recipients of the peace awards have been on the political left; and one might even wonder whether the awarding of three Nobel Prizes to women scientists this year may have been some kind of affirmative-action gesture, given the lopsided gender disparity among cutting-edge scientists and mathematicians.

More often than not the Nobel Prize for Peace has been awarded as a political statement. Albert Schweitzer, the Protestant missionary doctor, who spent his long life ministering to African tribesmen, and Mother Theresa were the splendid exceptions to the rule. The more typical recipients have been engaged revolutionaries, like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Arafat, and the civil rights activist Martin Luther King. FOX commentators were being disingenuous when they presented Gandhi and Martin Luther King as the ideal recipients for the peace prize. What this means is that while they applaud Gandhi and King, they dislike the current president. Of course all three Nobel Prize recipients have identified with the Left; and it is doubtful that FOX would have found King’s economic views or advisors any more palatable than Obama’s. But since two of the honorees are now dead, FOX is free to celebrate them.

Charles Krauthammer, a FOX commentator, expressed outrage that Obama was given a prize that had once gone to President Woodrow Wilson for his contribution to the Treaty of Versailles. It’s apparently unseemly to award a chief executive who has done so little internationally with the same prize that had been bestowed on a truly great peacemaker. But the treaty Wilson helped frame, and made the U.S. complicit in, was harsh and vindictive; and this came after Wilson had behaved duplicitously, when he had the chance to make peace among the European belligerents, and after he had dragged his country into a “€œcrusade for democracy”€ that ended with 180,000 dead Americans and further European strife.

Moreover, the Senate was justified in rejecting Wilson’s call for American participation in the League of Nations. The League was designed to hold down the losers of the War, who in fact were excluded from joining. Also the League persistently and willfully ignored what today would be called “€œhuman rights”€ abuses practiced against German, Hungarian, and Austrian minorities trapped in the states that the Treaty of Versailles created or expanded in East Central Europe. The European victors viewed these successor states as a bulwark against any attempt by the German Republic and Soviet Union to revise territorial borders. The Senate, which had endorsed Wilson’s war, had a change of heart afterwards and decided in the future to deal with European problems without the promise of American military forces.

I would find it hard to justify giving a peace award to Wilson that I would deny to Obama. Nor was the Norwegian committee’s decision to award Wilson such a prize in 1919 a purely humanitarian gesture. Like other Scandinavians, the Norwegians had (very wisely) stayed out of the Great War, and they may well have been trying to butter up the victors after the ensuing peace.

The committee’s decision to bestow on Obama the peace prize right after his inauguration was a partisan act, but not without precedent. At the very least, Obama has done less to hinder peace than other prize recipients.  


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