The Nobel Committee awarded Barack Obama the peace prize for the same reason that Americans elected him president last year: his image as a uniter. The committee said, "His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population." Obama echoed that sentiment when he called the prize "an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations."
Obama is the un-Bush. Americans elected him to deliver what George W. Bush had promised but failed to deliver as president -- to be "a uniter, not a divider." As a Fox News host observed, Obama may be the third person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for not being Bush. The others? Former President Carter, who received the prize in 2002, and former Vice President Gore, who won it in 2007. In his congratulatory note to Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "Finally, it sets the seal on America's return to the heart of all the world's peoples."
What has Obama done exactly? He has repudiated torture, pledged to shut down the Guantanamo detention facility, committed his administration to taking climate change seriously, put Middle East peace negotiations back on the agenda, criticized Israeli settlement policy, won a United Nations Security Council resolution pledging to rid the world of nuclear weapons, offered to engage Iran and North Korea in negotiations, and started reviewing U.S. strategy in the Afghanistan war.
Obama has rebranded America. Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London-based think tank on world affairs, told The Washington Post, "Look, here, finally a U.S. leader who also represents our same values."
What the Europeans love is a less unilateralist, less trigger-happy United States.
Polls confirm it. In the Pew Global Attitudes survey conducted in 25 countries during May and June, hefty majorities in European nations said they had confidence in Obama to do the right thing in world affairs: 93 percent in Germany, 91 percent in France, and 86 percent in Britain. In 2008, only 14 percent of Germans, 13 percent of the French, and 16 percent of the British expressed similar confidence in Bush.
Obama observed, "Throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it's also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes." German Chancellor Willy Brandt won the prize in 1971 for his policy of reconciliation with Eastern Europe, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev won it in 1990 for his reform policies a year before the Soviet Union collapsed.
Obama's causes may represent the values of European elites, but they remain controversial in the United States. Now the Nobel Prize has gotten caught up in that controversy. It has made Europe a partisan in the culture wars. "They love a weakened, neutered U.S., and this is their way of promoting that concept," Rush Limbaugh wrote in an e-mail to Politico.
What the Europeans love is a less unilateralist, less trigger-happy United States. "Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts," the Nobel Committee said in its statement announcing the award winner. That approach will be tested in Afghanistan, Iran, and the Middle East.
The peace prize should bolster Obama's efforts to isolate Iran diplomatically and enforce tough sanctions if that nation refuses to comply with demands to end its nuclear weapons program. But that depends on whether China and Russia cooperate. The prize should help Obama bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table. But that depends on whether he can get support for his peace initiative in the Arab world. The prize should encourage Obama to resist pressure from the U.S. military to escalate the war in Afghanistan. But that depends on whether the Europeans will continue to stand by the U.S. in Afghanistan.
The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for Obama's "values and attitudes." Those values and attitudes are far from universal in the U.S. The president has to show that they work. Having honored Obama, the rest of the world now has a stake in ensuring his success.
This article appears in the October 17, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.