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Why Obama Now?

Omkar Goswami


Even the most fervent advocates of the Nobel Prize will admit that the various committees selecting the prize winners sometimes make mistakes.

Consider the Nobel Prize for literature. How many can claim that they have read the works of Theodor Mommsen (1902), Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903), Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905), Selma Lagerlöf (1909), Karl Gjellerup and Henrik Pontoppidan (1917), Sigrid Undset (1928), Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1939), Pär Lagerkvist (1951), Halldór Laxness (1955), and Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson (1974)?

The list above is entirely made up of Scandinavians. It could be that Scandinavia routinely produces global literary masters whose works, being in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Finnish and Icelandic, are only read by the very few who live in those cold climes. What seems more likely — and this has been stated by many — is that every once in a while, the selection committee feels that something must be done for the kith and kin. And so it does.

There have also been terrible omissions. In literature, it starts with Mark Twain. Goes on to Leo Tolstoy. James Joyce. Henrik Ibsen (a Norwegian to boot). Robert Frost. W.H. Auden. Vladimir Nabokov. And a man who was rejected for almost two decades on the trot — Jorge Luis Borges.

What is true in literature also holds for the Nobel Prize for peace. There have been major boo-boos and equally cardinal omissions. Among the poor choices are Teddy Roosevelt (1906, US President, lover of wars and annexing territories, uncontrolled killer of big game in Africa, whose “Speak softly and carry a big stick” says more than anything else). A bunch of Scandinavians who got it for truly small measures: Klas Pontus Arnoldson and Frederik Bajer (1908); Karl Hjalmar Branting and Christian Louis Lange (1921); Fridtjof Nansen (1922); and Nathan Söderblom (1930). Henry Kissinger (1973) for bigger things, such as mercilessly bombing North Vietnam and Haiphong for months to force a truce with North Vietnam. Among the omissions, the most glaring one: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

This brings me to the Nobel Peace Laureate for 2009 — Barack Hussein Obama, the current and 44th President of the USA. According to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the prize has been awarded to Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. The Nobel Committee would have us belief that in just 10 months at the White House, Obama has not only “created a new climate in international politics” but also a vision of “a world without nuclear weapons”. That “multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position”; and thanks to Obama, we are looking at “the vision of a world free from nuclear arms” and a world ready to deal with the challenges of climate change. Great words, indeed!

I sincerely hope that all these sentiments turn out to be true. Four years from now, I pray that President Obama is universally seen as one the most influentially peaceful, caring and prophetic leader of the modern world. But these are my hopes and prayers. In the last 10 months, none of us can say with any certainty — and with enough facts at our disposal — that Obama has shown all the attributes which the Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to have seen in bestowing the prize. The good and glorious things that the Committee has stated in its press release just haven’t happened.

I believe that the issue is deeper than what meets the eye. One way of interpreting this is that it is a ‘deep strategy’ play. By awarding Obama the Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee is attempting to force a series of ex ante (before the event) actions on the current US President. A Nobel Peace Prize winner will find it very difficult to increase troop concentration or drone air attacks in Afghanistan; engage in cross border reprisals against the Taliban in Pakistan; take a hard-line with Iran, North Korea, or an increasingly resurgent Russia; take a tough position in climate change negotiations; or be a bad boy in major multilateral bodies. “Make him Jesus, so that Jesus He will be.”

Another interpretation involves huge faith. Those who proposed Obama’s name and the Nobel Peace Committee truly believe that the 44th US President of the US is a person who will do all the good and glorious things for global peace and cooperation — although one hasn’t seen much of it yet. Since the belief is so overwhelming, why wait?

Whatever the reason, rational thought suggests that selecting Obama the Nobel Peace Laureate for 2009 has been rash. It would have been far more sensible to see how he actually administered his first term before taking a decision. And if there was no other candidate in the fray, the Committee need not have announced a winner. After all, that has occurred 19 times since 1901 — so the 20th would have been no great shakes.


Published: Business World, October 2009


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