All Eyes on the Prize

The world won’t go to pieces just because Obama won a Nobel

It seems like Barack Obama just can’t please the American public anymore. A little over a week ago, criticism rained down on the president when his personal bid to bring the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago fell flat. Then, last Friday, Obama generated almost as much anger for becoming the 2009 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Peace. It’s enough to make a person stop and wonder—is it better to be a winner or a loser, or are both equally objectionable?

Of course, not all criticism has been aimed at the president. Though commentators took aim at Obama for his actions on behalf of the Olympic bid, harsh words over the prize have generally been more directed toward the Nobel Committee for its decision, rather than at Obama himself. Yet the mere existence of a controversy strongly implies a negative critique of the president as being a superficially popular leader who does not have to earn his accolades like everyone else.

Regardless of who is actually getting the brunt of it, the grumblings over Obama’s Nobel Prize are at best unproductive and at worst damaging to the “efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” that the award purported to recognize.

That is not to say that many around the U.S. and the globe did not have reason to react with surprise and confusion upon hearing that Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize so early in his presidential term. Given that Obama has still not produced many concrete diplomatic accomplishments in the few short months he has been in office, the award seems strangely premature, bestowed as an endorsement of Obama’s vision rather than his actions. Although none of this provides grounds for faulting Obama himself, who clearly didn’t submit his own nomination, the award has left even strong Obama supporters feeling bitter that the president is too highly regarded.

While there may be some truth to this allegation, it seems a tired argument. Despite the international prestige attached to the award, the Nobel Prize in Peace does not, and never has, explicitly reflect the opinion of the world. It was established by the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel to be administered in Norway, and it should thus come as no shock that the prize recipients may reflect the political leanings of that country. After all, the winners are determined by the Norwegian Nobel Committee (appointed by the Norwegian Parliament), which reviews nominations and makes a decision based on recommendations from Norwegian academics and special advisors to the committee.


Moreover, “peace” is the most nebulous of all the Nobel categories—and the one most difficult to quantify. One could endlessly debate the merits of many Nobel laureates—Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, and Theodore Roosevelt spring immediately to mind—but to what end? Nothing constructive can come of tedious arguments over whether Obama deserved the Nobel. He accepted the prize humbly—and even if he had refused it, Nobel Prize statutes dictate that it would not have gone to anyone else.

The overall level of vitriol surrounding both the president’s “undeserved” Nobel Prize and his failed Olympic bid is bewildering simply because neither is in any way a reflection of seriously flawed leadership, political decision-making, or moral judgment on his part.

Perhaps Obama overestimated his own powers of influence when he appealed to the Olympic Selection Committee, and maybe the time and money he spent flying to and from Copenhagen could have been put to better use. But it’s doubtful that his not making the trip would have magically ended the recession or made Congress agree on a health-care bill. There is little point in making a fuss over an act that damaged nothing except for Chicagoans’ pride.

And in the case of the Nobel, the prize committee deserves criticism for failing to foresee the potential political backlash its actions would cause, but what’s done is done. Even if awarding the Nobel Prize in Peace to Obama was a mistake, it was not an egregious one. The real mistake would be to make so much of this event that it seriously hampers his political and diplomatic initiatives, many of which are admirable. Enough people have said that Obama needs to prove himself worthy of this honor—maybe they should stop their clamoring long enough to let him try.

Adrienne Y. Lee ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Quincy House.