Obama’s prize: why not refuse it?

datePosted on 14:27, October 12th, 2009 by Lew

I was as surprised as anyone else who’s been paying the smallest bit of attention to geopolitics this past year when Barack Obama was announced as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. This is one issue on which many of his supporters and critics are apparently united: what has he done to deserve it?

Obama himself professes to agree that it’s not justified:

“I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize,” he said. “I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”

So why accept it (essentially on credit) instead of refusing it, requesting that the Nobel Committee award it to someone else, and accept a future prize at a later date when the award can be made on the basis of merit? This course of action would demonstrate that Obama is more concerned with world peace, with the (admittedly flagging) credibility of the Nobel prizes, and more importantly with action than with pretty rhetoric and his own status as a diplomatic celebrity.

Rejecting this award would have caused a stir and some embarrassment among the international diplomatic community, but it would have been an opportunity to silence critics on both Obama’s flanks, the pacifist left and the right. Certainly, some would have found ways to turn it against him (after all, the sun still rises in the East), but I believe it would have been met with near-universal acclaim. It would have been a clear message: judge me on my achievements, not on my identity.

This was a test, and to my mind Obama has failed. It’s a damned shame.

L

18 Responses to “Obama’s prize: why not refuse it?”

  1. JakeQuinn on October 12th, 2009 at 15:40

    Is there a precedent for turning down this award? That would have been a huge call to make..

  2. Lew on October 12th, 2009 at 16:32

    Jake, I don’t know. But there’s plenty of precedent for turning down other awards. And if the Leader of the Free World™ can’t turn down an honour which he admits he hasn’t properly earned, who can?

    He’s a leader; he ought to lead.

    L

  3. Quoth the Raven on October 12th, 2009 at 18:23

    This the best piece I’ve read on this issue Lew. I completely agree.

    I don’t know about the peace prize, but Sartre turned down the Nobel prize in literature.

  4. Keir on October 12th, 2009 at 19:51

    Turning down the Nobel is almost* always a snub though & I don’t think Obama wants to snub the Nobels.

    Also of course the Prize isn’t exactly Obama’s, it’s more the `not-a-Republican’ thing, and it isn’t really his to refuse, because it was more of a thank god the Americans are sane again prize than anything else.

    And previous sitting presidents have accepted the Nobel; it would be a bit presumptuous for Obama to decline.

    * I can’t think of any that weren’t polite rebukes at best, and in the Peace Prizes none that weren’t pretty blatant.

  5. SPC on October 12th, 2009 at 21:55

    I don’t think anyone wants this to be an “identity” issue Lew.

    But sure the issue is about the lack of achievement before the award was given. The Norwegians simply want to thank Obama for keeping hope alive and otherwise to support his declared intentions.

    Sometimes simply wanting to do the right thing changes the tone and changing the tone is the way to return to a more peaceful world. In that sense, given the office that he holds, Obama has done a lot for “peace”.

  6. Idiot/savant on October 13th, 2009 at 00:58

    That would have required humility. Which a) is UnAmerican; and b) tends to be lacking in people who run for President.

    I agree, though, he should have refused. And I’d have thought a lot more of him if he had.

  7. Lew on October 13th, 2009 at 06:54

    SPC,

    I think the fact that Obama is the first black president is inextricable from his ‘hope and change’ narrative, which you seem to agree is the basis for his award. I accept that the change of track that his election represents is a peaceward move — I just don’t accept that it’s enough to merit one of the world’s (nominally) most prestigious awards.

    L

  8. Neil on October 13th, 2009 at 07:08

    I think Obama and his team wanted this story to go away and the best way of doing that was just accepting it. Turning it down would have just keep the story alive.

    The general reaction has been “too early” and that has reflected badly on the committee not Obama.

  9. marty mars on October 13th, 2009 at 09:08

    It’s never a good sign when your supporters and opponents both agree.

    I was dissapointed with this and i agree that declining would have been a good way to go.

    I hope it stops him increasing his various war efforts.

  10. Hugh on October 13th, 2009 at 10:10

    I believe Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese foreign minister who was jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1973 for ending US participation in the Vietnam war, refused it. (Henry Kissinger, also jointly offered it, accepted it).

    So that would be your Republican narrative – that the only other person to ever refuse the Nobel was a COMMUNIST!

    At first I thought no sitting US president had ever been awarded the Nobel, but I was wrong – Teddy Roosevelt got it in 1905 for brokering the Russo-Japanese peace, and Woodrow Wilson got it in 1919 for setting up the League of Nations. Obama may well be a better President than either of them but he has, at this point, made less of a contribution to world peace than Roosevelt (not sure about Wilson!).

    But part of the problem is that the peace prize isn’t really about ‘peace’ so much as it is ‘general awesomeness’. It’s hard to justify giving it to Mother Theresa or Lech Walesa – how many wars did they stop?

    There needs to be a general Nobel quality-of-life prize or something like it.

  11. Jake Quinn on October 13th, 2009 at 14:24

    Neil said “I think Obama and his team wanted this story to go away and the best way of doing that was just accepting it. Turning it down would have just keep the story alive.”

    I think you’ve probably hit the nail on the head there.

  12. Bruce Hamilton on October 13th, 2009 at 15:40

    The general reaction has been “too early” and that has reflected badly on the committee not Obama.

    I suspect that Obama was sitting in the Rock and Hard Place location.

    If he declined, it certainly would reflect badly on the committe, who might then become spiteful, and offer it to somebody unpalatable – Putin, Chavez. If he accepts, at least he knows the friendly affiliations of the winner :-).

    I assume the committee couldn’t agree on a more worthy winner. I assume we don’t know the nominees, obviously not many have recently been successful in generating “peace”.

    I’m really surprised the committee didn’t sound him out first, like most Commonwealth governments do for bestowed honours.

  13. Pablo on October 13th, 2009 at 16:47

    Being liberal institutionalists, the Prize Committee (and most European policy-makers) would see the award as a move to lock Obama in to his stated multilateralist approach towards foreign policy, especially on issues of disarmament and conflict resolution. I believe they seriously overestimate the weight that the award carries when bestowed on a sitting US president, whose foreign policy role is defined more by past history, current necessities and forms of engagement given the state of domestic politics rather than by foreign accolades. That makes all US presidents more realist than liberal even if their personal preferences are with the latter stance (such as in the case of Jimmy Carter). So Obama is bound to disappoint the awards committee because his job is to put the US national interest first, which will not always coincide with multilaterialism and conflict avoidance.

    I/S: Your comment about humility being an “Unamerican” trait betrays prejudice or ignorance, but in either case is wrong. There is plenty of humility in the US, including in policy circles, but it just gets overshadowed by the self-promoting poseurs that the media tend to spotlight. That, plus the US self-perception as a super-power, makes for an institutional situation in which political humility is portrayed as weakness or indecisiveness by ranting nationalists and political opportunists, thereby forcing the otherwise humble to avoid looking as much when pursuing political careers. In other words, lack of humility is not an innate American trait, but an acquired characteristic that is socially imposed and institutionally reinforced.

  14. Neil on October 13th, 2009 at 18:31

    If he declined, it certainly would reflect badly on the committe, who might then become spiteful, and offer it to somebody unpalatable – Putin, Chavez.

    or Bush. ha.

    Being liberal institutionalists, the Prize Committee (and most European policy-makers) would see the award as a move to lock Obama in to his stated multilateralist approach towards foreign policy, especially on issues of disarmament and conflict resolution.

    that does look like what they wantd to do. Which is misguided to say the least. From his reaction he sees it as more of a hindrance.

    It’s all a bit silly but I think Morgan Tsvangirai would have been a better bet. Thanks to him and his colleagues and supporters a very nasty dictatorship has been democratised largely by peaceful means. That is a rare thing.

  15. Pascal's bookie on October 13th, 2009 at 19:37

    Being liberal institutionalists, the Prize Committee (and most European policy-makers) would see the award as a move to lock Obama in to his stated multilateralist approach towards foreign policy, especially on issues of disarmament and conflict resolution.

    I’d guess so too. But I think there’s more to it.

    A lot of mileage has been made out of the fact that nominations closed in Feb, or whenever, and this is supposed to show just how ridiculous it all is. As if the prize is given for actual accomplishments and Obama couldn’t have achieved anything by then.

    I think that this argument misses what may have been the point.

    The prize often goes to works in progress, as if the committee is saying that they are watching (and they think the world should be), and that the recipient deserves recognition not merely for what they have achieved, but for what they are doing, what their stated aims are, or even for how they are planning to achieve those aims. (eg, people favouring diplomacy will be recognised before those dropping bombs.)

    Obama isn’t just ‘not Bush’. Is a good line with a large element of truth in it, but no where near the whole truth. Bush’s America actively scorned diplomacy. They said the Geneva conventions, of all things, were quaint. They sent Bolton, who considered the UN to be irrelevant at best, and an enemy at worst, to the UN as ambassador.

    And it wasn’t just Bush. During the primaries Obama had to defend the concept of diplomacy against his Democratic Party rivals. His idea that the US could actually have something to gain by talking to her ‘enemies’ was seen as not just something different, but border-line treason.

    Remember all the stuff about ‘preconditions’? Where any talks with Iran had to start with the Iranians accepting the US position? That’s not diplomac. Obama stood up to that, and won first the primary, and then the White House. the US ambassador to the UN is in his cabinet.

    In spite of the many many things he has not done, and should and could be doing better, the US is actually doing diplomacy again. That’s actually a huge change, and not everyone that isn’t bush caused that. I suspect that’s what the prize is about.

    I’m not sure how turning it down would have helped any. It would be just as arrogant to tell the Nobel committee that he actually knows better than them who deserves their award as it was to accept it. And turning it down on the grounds that he hadn’t been in the job long enough would leave the issue hanging over his presidency. There would be an implied “I don’t deserve it yet” meme that would be used by all sides. Particularly his right wing opponents who would greet any diplomacy efforts with accusations that he was showboating for his prize.

    So I reckon accepting the prize with humility, and vowing to live up to it with the world’s help, was about the best he could do.

    The next tricky bit is what to do wit the prize money. Just to watch the meltdown, I’d give it to ACORN. Or the Red Crescent (only half in jest, but he would have to change his rules of engagement to recognise that ‘force protection’ is less important than not killing the civilians you are supposed to be protecting)

  16. Neil on October 13th, 2009 at 19:57

    It would be just as arrogant to tell the Nobel committee that he actually knows better than them who deserves their award as it was to accept it.

    i think he does know better which is why he’s down-played this.

    Bush’s America actively scorned diplomacy.

    Bush’s America cooperated with France over Haiiti. Bush’s America set up the six-party talks with North Korea.

    Bush’s America also has the support of Britain (under Blair then under Gordan) in Iraq and Afghanistan – interventions that were bith eventually endoresed by the UN.

    So even if you disagree with those governments that allied with Bush and with the UN, it’s hard to see how you can argue that Bush scorned international diplomacy.

  17. Pascal's bookie on October 13th, 2009 at 21:08

    i think he does know better which is why he’s down-played this.

    maybe so, but so what? Obama has accepted their decision, rather than telling them he thinks they got it wrong, (which would be silly in my view, it’s their award to give to whoever they want to).

    Bush’s America set up the six-party talks with North Korea.

    Eventually yes, but I forget, was that before or after NK tested a nuke?

    There was a very strong theme in US ‘diplomacy’ over the last admin that said talking to the US’s enemies ‘gave them legitimacy’ and should be avoided. The only talking to be done was with military action explicitly on the table, and preconditions such that the ‘enemy’ was there to agree to terms basically. In NK that approach led to nuclear proliferation, and the Iranian regime seems to be no less entrenched for all that the US hasn’t been talking to them.

    Bush’s America also has the support of Britain (under Blair then under Gordan) in Iraq and Afghanistan – interventions that were bith eventually endoresed by the UN.

    Diplomacy with ones allies hardly counts.

    it’s hard to see how you can argue that Bush scorned international diplomacy.

    Well, I’ve just argued it and it’s not an uncommon belief Neil. You are of course free to disagree.

  18. Falafulu Fisi on October 21st, 2009 at 17:15

    Obama has been awarded a Nobel Prize for being the best wordsmithing. I agree, he never achieved anything so far, but the committee just awarded him the prize for saying nice words and nothing more.

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