Friday, October 9, 2009

Was it right to award Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize?

I must admit my first reaction when I vaguely heard something about the news earlier today was "that can't possibly be right", so I suppose that ought to answer my own question. But of course the Nobel Committee has often in the past awarded the prize to a person of goodwill (or assumed to be of goodwill) as a kind of exhortation to them to continue striving for peace in the future. It can indeed be a powerful incentive - if, several years down the line, nothing has been accomplished, or things have actually got worse, the prize can become almost a mark of shame rather than pride. That was for a time, it's worth remembering, the case for John Hume and David Trimble, who were given the award at a relatively early stage of the Northern Ireland peace process, which still had "many a slip twixt cup and lip" to come. During those slips, it was often suggested to Hume and Trimble that they ought to return the prize money. Did this factor shame them (or rather Trimble and his colleagues in particular) into pushing for a durable settlement? It's hard to see it as an overriding factor, but it certainly can't have done any harm.

The recognition for Obama can also, I think, be justified simply on direction and speed of travel. For a country that less than a year ago was perceived (probably accurately given its capacity to project its will onto others) as the greatest threat to world peace to have transformed itself into a force for reconciliation in many arenas does indeed look impressive. If Obama had succeeded the Clinton administration, it would look rather less so. But it's the paradox of the Peace Prize that it is typically awarded to people from countries that have recently stoked conflict - how else could it have gone to Northern Ireland twice?

I'm writing this in blissful ignorance of what the conservative American blogosphere have made of this news. I'm about to dive in and discover. I'm sure they will be thoroughly magnanimous, pleased that the leader of their country has received this extraordinary accolade, regardless of any political differences...