Like many of you, I awoke today to the surprising (to say the least) news that the Nobel Committee had chosen President Obama as the recipient of the 2009 Peace Prize. Once I got over the initial shock (and awe?) phase, I began to wonder, again no doubt like many of you, whether this honor hadn't come a tad early in Obama's career. After all, he's only been in office nine months, and the formal nomination deadline had occurred just two weeks after his inauguration. So perhaps the Nobel Committee had jumped the gun a little bit. Perhaps there isn't yet enough in Obama's CV or list of concrete accomplishments to merit this honor.
Some say that he's won this award only in contrast to the prior occupant of the Oval Office. And while it's true that simply by being President Obama, he's made the world a safer place than it was under President Bush/Cheney, it doesn't follow that anyone would have done the same thing (can you imagine President McCain winning this honor?).
But let's take a step back and think a little more broadly about this. “What has President Obama actually done to deserve this award?” is a question that makes more sense if one broadens the definition of “done”. End results are not the only kind of “doing” that matters.
So what are these more amorphous “doings” of Obama? Let's start by citing the official statement from the Nobel Committee, who lauded Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The Committee “attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” He has “created a new climate in international politics” wherein “[m]ultilateral diplomacy has regained a central position”, and “[h]is 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.”
The central point the Committee makes is this: In the realm of international politics and diplomacy, words matter. Attitudes and thoughts matter. Positions matter. Approaches, understandings, and fundamental principles really do matter.
These are the sorts of things that President Obama has done already. He has renewed America's respect for international law and international institutions, for the role of diplomacy, and for foundational principles of universal human rights. These really are vital things, folks! If we are ever to have a truly well-functioning international system, robust international law and vigorous international institutions are indispensable. If, on the other hand, you think that the go-it-alone, cowboy-diplomacy style of the prior Administration was a good idea, then I can understand why you wouldn't think internationalism is all that important. Just remember that the world's a big place, and it can get mighty lonely out there all by yourself. America isn't the Imperial Colossus astride the world, and it couldn't be that even if you wanted it to be.
But that brings me to another important point. America isn't in a position to run the world by itself (although we might once have been). We can't militarily bully the rest of the world into obsequiousness, and we can't economically dominate the world's markets. However, this Nobel Prize does demonstrate one thing about America's preeminence in the world. It shows us that the world still longs for American leadership in the service of higher ideals. The world looks to America as the beacon of democracy, the champion of human rights, and the guardian of the rule of law. The world really does want America to succeed, which in this instance also means they want President Obama to succeed in fulfilling his aspirations on the international stage (unlike some critics who celebrate every perceived Obama failure).
We live in times that call for visionary leadership. Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18). Where there is a vision, a vision of a future of international cooperation and mutual respect promulgated and led by the world's preeminent nation, all of the world's people will have a better chance to live in peace. “Imagine all the people living life in peace” (happy birthday, John)? Maybe that's too much to imagine. But more peace, less war, more cooperation and respect, and less hatred and violence? That's a vision we can all imagine.