The Nobel Committee’s choice of President Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize was baffling, to Norwegians and Americans alike. Even President Obama himself was amazed. As he admitted in his acceptance speech today, compared to other recipients, he has indeed accomplished “very little.” (And he had accomplished even less when the nomination was made last February, just days into his presidential term.) In some ways, it has made a joke of the entire idea of the Norwegian Peace Prize.
Yet, looked at from the perspective of creating controversy, the Nobel Committee acted true to form. Any committee that can award a Peace Prize with a straight face to former Vice President Al Gore for stopping global warming clearly has an agenda and an eye for controversy, rather than achievements. And of course, no one should underestimate the temptation felt by Europeans to stick it to former President George W. Bush, whenever the opportunity presents itself.
And controversy the Norwegians got during President Obama’s brief visit to Oslo. In an act of stunning insensitivity to his hosts, the U.S. president declined most of the public and ceremonial activities associated with the Nobel Peace Prize award, including visits with Norwegian school children, a press conference and – the ultimate snub — lunch with the king of Norway. For a small monarchy, where the royal family is the center of a great amount of popular attention, that one really hurt.
Likely, the calculation was from the White House that the images of the president lunching with the King of Norway in the royal palace as the U.S. economy limps and unemployment pushes past 10 percent would be deeply unfortunate. Still, as an undiplomatic gesture showing lack of sensitivity to an allied nation, the decision to cut short the Norwegian Nobel ceremonies was right up there with return of the bust of Winston Churchill to the British Embassy from the Oval Office after the presidential inauguration last January.
Instead of press conferences and photo-ops, the president treated the Norwegians to a lecture, Obama-style. The speech had some truly startling howlers, such as the president’s egocentric claim that he himself is a product of the principle of civil disobedience as exemplified by Gandhi and Martin Luther King (forgetting the sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of Americans to end slavery in the Civil War). Equally startling was the president’s comparison of radical Islamist Jihad against the West with the medieval Crusades, playing right into the hands of Jihadists.
The most interesting aspect of the address was the effort to reconcile the Peace Prize with the fact that Obama is the president of a nation at war, leading to a lengthy and somewhat confused exposition of the concept of just war and defense of the troop surge in Afghanistan. In many ways, the speech was typical Obama, a masterpiece of one the one hand, on the other hand. No wonder the stoic Norwegian audience failed to show much enthusiasm. Indeed, the only line that aroused much enthusiasm was the reference to the closing of Guantanamo Bay.
On the one hand, President Obama, appropriately defended the use of force in the interest of national security – as in Afghanistan — and correctly referenced the just war concept. On the other hand, he stretched the term security to include prosperity and welfare, not simply freedom from harm.
On the one hand, he also correctly reminded the audience of the importance of the United States security umbrella that made post-World War II global prosperity and stability possible. (He could not resist the obligatory reference to American mistakes, though.) On the other hand, he apparently credited the post-World War II institutions like the United Nations with keeping World War III from breaking out in Europe.
On the one hand, he correctly defended human rights. On the other, he downplayed any expectation that the United States will take on human rights violators on directly.
The president also informed the undoubtedly totally confused Norwegians that he is neither a realist nor an isolationist:
Within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists – a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values. I reject this choice. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests – nor the world’s –are served by the denial of human aspirations.
What comes first — freedom or peace, interests or values? For those with a taste for textual deconstruction, President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech offers ample opportunity.