A clear majority of Europeans believe Obama will make the world safer. But few think he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize – at least for now
Survey: Obama will make the world more secure
The general public is still very enthusiastic about Obama, especially in Europe, according to the international survey conducted by YouGov for Monday Morning (see textbox on page 7). Over 80 percent of those surveyed in the Nordic countries say they generally feel positive about the US president, while in the UK the number is 73 percent. Most people strongly believe that Obama can help restore peace and security in the world. Over 50 percent of those surveyed in the Nordic countries, Britain and Germany, think that the president will contribute to make the world a safer place (see figure 1).
But, unlike the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the general public remains unconvinced about the “Obama effect” on international peace and security today. Just 20 percent of the population in the US and the Nordic countries believe it was right to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama – a proportion dropping to 12% in the UK. 60% of Britons are critical of the committee’s decision, compared with more than 50% of people in the US and the Nordic countries. Germans are the most positive: 35 percent believe Obama was the right choice. In Norway, where the prize is handed out, 27% of those surveyed support the decision, with more than 50% opposing it (see figure 2).
The chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, declines to comment the survey. “We do not comment on such things. The committee is completely independent. We are independent of national policy, governments, and international opinion. We do not make decisions based on polls, but on the statutes provided for us,” he says.
Our survey suggests that it is not Obama or his actions the public react to – as happened with past laureates such as Henry Kissinger. They take issue with the fact that Obama barely had an opportunity to do anything.
Scott London, an American journalist and a Nobel Peace Prize expert, believes the award has, to some degree, diminished the standing of the prize. «It has given the world the impression that it’s a symbolic and political prize, rather than one for actual peacemaking,» he says.
London stresses that “it was inevitable that in the US many conservatives would be deeply critical of this year’s choice”. He says: “Some well-known commentators have suggested that the Norwegian Nobel Committee is made up of a bunch of short-sighted liberals”. “But even many Obama’s supporters US were critical of this year’s award, because they felt that he had not earned it yet.”
Experts Monday Morning has contacted suggest several reasons why the public is dissatisfied with this year’s award:
- Premature award: The Peace Prize came too soon. Although many think Obama will contribute to a safer world, he does not yet deserve it.
- Disgruntlement created by the media: People have been caught up in the criticism promoted by the media.
- Statesman and military leader: Some say it is contradictory to award the Peace Prize to the commander-in-chief of the largest military system in the world.
A premature prize?
Many people feel the prize was given too soon, according to historian Øivind Stenersen, co-author of The Nobel Peace Prize: One Hundred Years for Peace. “Although many support Obama’s goals, most would have preferred to wait and see whether he would be able to realise them,” he says. “This award joins the ranks of other peace prizes that, in the public eye, were awarded before concrete results were achieved.”
Makes world a safer place
Do you think Barack Obama in the coming years will contribute to make the world a safer place? Positive answers as percentage
Nordic and European countries believe in Obama, while Arab countries don’t have the same expectations
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has, in the past, recognised laureates to push them to finish what they had begun and bind them to their commitments. The prize stimulates future work as much as it does reward a long and faithful service in the service of peace. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, says Stenersen, citing the awards given to those who negotiated peace deals in Northern Ireland, South Africa, North and South Korea, and the Middle East. The first two had some success, the latter two did not.
Media to blame
Professor Ole O. Moen from the University of Oslo, an expert on US affairs, believes the media is to blame for the public disapproval of Obama’s Peace Prize. «The media feels now that it had to compensate for a long period of admiration and puppy love for Obama. They were in love. Now they have to moderate their response,» he says.
Moen stresses that it has become popular for some to ride on this negative wave, with others seeing a chance to campaign against Jagland, a former prime minister. Moen does not believe that the man in the street was quite as negative to the committee’s decisions from the outset, but that many eventually began to join in the media hype.
Many people in the US are swayed by conservative commentators, Moen adds, rejecting the idea voiced by many conservative critics that the American press has a liberal bias.
“The US media is not liberal. Most Americans do not read newspapers. Many of them are at the mercy of conservative television and radio shows that are extremely critical of Obama,” he says, adding that Americans know little about either foreign policy or the Nobel Peace Prize. In his view, there is nothing new about awarding the Peace Prize early in order to boost a process, rather than handing it out when the work is done.
“The word on the street is that Obama has not yet done anything for peace, that he is unable to point to concrete results. But that is exactly what he has done,” says Moen.
A well-known prize
The Nobel Peace Prize is well known in most countries. In the US, 72 percent of those surveyed say they know it quite well, compared with 75 percent in the UK and, 86 percent in the Nordic countries. In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, between 85 and 95 percent say they know the price quite well. Most surprising, perhaps, is that only 25 percent of those surveyed in Finland, neighbour to the prize’s home country of Norway, say they had no prior knowledge of the prize, but had recently heard about it.
According to the historian, Obama quickly gained the respect of other world leaders after taking office, no mean feat for a US president after eight years of George W. Bush. He has abandoned his predecessor’s unilateral strategies to promote multilateral action. In his speech to the UN in September, he urged for an end to the US’ go-it-alone policy and pushed a resolution at the UN Security Council calling for an end to the spread of nuclear weapons. “These were extremely important symbolic acts,” says Moen.
In addition, Obama invited an Arabic TV channel to interview him for his first TV interview as president. He reached out to the Muslim world with his June speech in Cairo. Obama sent state secretary Hillary Clinton and special envoy Richard Holbrooke to an international summit on Afghanistan in The Hague. During the meeting, Holbrooke met Iran’s deputy foreign minister, an important symbolic act.
Moen also points out that Obama has eased trade restrictions on Cuba and has outlined with Russia a disarmament plan that replaces the START-I agreement, which expires in December 2009. “This is almost worth a Nobel Peace Prize alone,” says Moen.
Perhaps most important was Obama’s role at the G20 meeting in London in April. According to Moen, Obama showed true statesmanship by convincing world leaders that the US was once again ready to join the global community as a trustworthy member. Other examples include vice-president Joe Biden’s trip to South America, and the message that the missile shield would most likely be shelved.
All these are strong symbolic acts that are unique in American history, reckons Moen. He adds that although much of it is a question of diplomacy, concrete results have emerged after almost a year in office. He says the US leader is showing a willingness to make a fresh start that is essential for peace and security in the world.
London agrees. No one has done more «to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples,” as the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in its citation to Obama. He says the US is now playing a more constructive role on a wide range of global fronts, from democracy and human rights to climate change and the reduction of nuclear weapons.
Did not deserve the Peace Prize
Do you think it was a correct decision to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama? Answers as percentage.
Between 12% and 35% believe it was a correct decision to give the Peace Prize to Obama. Between 43% and 60% believe it was wrong.
The big question is whether Obama is the sort of leader who, like Nelson Mandela or Mikhail Gorbachev, will score a number of victories for peace, open a new window of opportunity for the world, and, perhaps, change the course of history.
“Like many people, I believe Obama may be such a person. If that’s the case, then in time we will look back on this as one of the best and most obvious of prizes, much as we now look upon the award to Martin Luther King Jr,” says London.
The US stands central
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has a long tradition of awarding the Peace Prize to American politicians(see also figure on page 26). It has long held the view that the US has played a key role in international diplomacy and has been a crucial factor in promoting world peace. From this point of view, the award to Obama falls in line with other awards in the best tradition of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Obama’s speech at the UN in September this year was in many ways a summary of everything the committee has stood for since 1901. Reconciliation, dialogue instead of confrontation, disarmament, and in recent years, the battle against climate change,” says Stenersen. He believes it was Obama’s groundbreaking UN speech in September that clinched the deal for the committee.
There is a certain dichotomous view of the US in Norway and in Europe: the US is both loved and hated. This dichotomy is also reflected in people’s perception of the Peace Prize to Obama, says Stenersen.
Another issue challenging the public’s notion of peace is the awarding of the prize to the commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military machine. The committee has responded by saying that many paths can lead to peace, and that throughout the prize’s history the concept of peace has been extended to include everything from planting trees to educational initiatives on climate change.
London believes that most people, himself included, recognise Obama to be the most powerful politician in the world today, and therefore not deserving of a prize like this at such an early stage of his career.
“It’s not a mistake. It’s more like a gamble. And we’ll have to wait to see if it pays off. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has an exemplary record, and in time I think the gamble will pay off. I believe history will be kind to Obama,” he says.
Artikkelens strategiske dagsorden: Vår globale verden
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