Like much of the rest of the world, President Obama this morning declared himself “surprised” that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the White House, no one there was ever aware that the president had been nominated last February 1, after just a few weeks in office.
The Nobel Peace Prize has tempted and eluded many other American presidents, including President Clinton, whose final year in office was frantically focused on a Nobel wining bid for Middle East peace. And yet, President Obama was chosen out of nearly three hundred other nominees on the basis of expectations, hope, not accomplishments.
In his acceptance speech, the president also declared himself “humbled,” an appropriate sentiment on this occasion, if not one often associated with the 44th president. “To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize,” Obama said in brief remarks at the White House. “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”
The president’s remarks suggested again the specific kind of leadership he has in mind, focused on climate change, nuclear disarmament, and multilateralism, in other words, a classic liberal agenda. Remarks from the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee members indicate that this was precisely the agenda they hoped to further with the award this year.
But the kind of humility exhibited by President Obama on this occasion has a distinct flavor. Going back to his speech in Berlin as a presidential candidate, in which he addressed “citizens of the world,” the president by now has a well-established record in his international orations of conjuring up a global following for his ideas, making him in a sense spokesman for all people everywhere. “All nations must take responsibility for the world we seek,” the president said. “We cannot tolerate a world in which nuclear weapons spread to more nations. … We cannot accept the growing threat posed by climate change, which could forever danger the world we pass on to our children. … We cannot allow the differences between people to allow the way we see one another. … This award is not simply about the efforts of my administration, it’s about the courageous efforts of people around the world,” he said.
The really interesting questions will be, of course, whether the Nobel Peace Prize will change President Obama’s style of diplomacy and indeed whether it will make other nations more inclined to follow where he wants to lead. So far the president’s international superstardom has not translated into cooperation or achievements that can be quantified, whether it be support from European leaders in Afghanistan, the Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympics or indeed for his ideas on climate change which were coolly received at the General Assembly of the United Nations in September. By the time, President Obama receives the award in December, we will know.