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    Why Obama Won the Nobel, Part II

    When Obama's Nobel Prize was first announced, I tried to explain why the Nobel Committee might have chosen him. Today, as he accepts the Prize, seems like a good time to finish that attempted explanation. But first, two quick things I need to say to frame the discussion.

    First, I myself would not have given Obama the Prize, and certainly not yet. Given the decision, I would not have chosen him (although I don't have any particular other candidate in mind). My goal is to understand the Committee's decision and try to grasp its underlying logic, not to endorse it. (Indeed, the Committee themselves might be having second thoughts today, after Obama endorsed the Augustinian principle of “just war” during his acceptance speech.) If you prefer to believe that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had no reasons, and are simply irrational people from Pluto, then this post is not so much for you.

    Second, while many people seem genuinely angry at the decision to give the Prize to Obama, and couch that anger in moral terms, I neither endorse the anger nor the framework of moral reasoning behind it. The idea that the Peace Prize might go to someone who does not deserve it, or that it justly belongs to some other, more worthy candidate, does not upset me. More to the point, I believe a focus on the justice or injustice of the award itself is misplaced. If one thinks of the Prize as something primarily meant to recognize deserving moral figures for their labors and suffering, as an honor accorded to saints, then of course Obama’s prize seems like an outrage. But the question of individual desert is morally trivial compared to the Peace Prize’s goal, which is to help end war and violence. The Peace Prize is a tool toward a political and moral end. It needs to be bestowed in the way that has the best chance of ending or preventing bloodshed. I find that goal morally compelling in a way that a quest to honor the “most deserving” individual could never be.

    If you feel committed to the idea that the Peace Prize should be about rewarding the saintly, because political sainthood needs to have an earthly reward, I would suggest that the Prize is a sorry substitute for the genuine rewards such people seek. The proper reward for the just is to do justice. The proper reward for the saint is good works. I do not see it as a terrible shame, for example, that Mahatma Gandhi never won the Prize. The goals of non-violent revolution and Indian independence were his prize, and he would not have traded them for money, or public honor, or a trip to Oslo. He would see those things as spiritual stumbling blocks, or as tools to be turned toward other goals.

    The point of the Nobel Peace Prize is to end war: to lend its credibility and prestige and disburse its cash award to people who will use those things toward the ends of peace. The moral question is how to allocate the Prize most effectively. That question is both utilitarian, because it aims to achieve the maximum good for the maximum number, and necessarily speculative, because no one to whom it can be given can be assured of success. If the prize is given only for completed accomplishments, for battles already ended, much of its value is lost. It is more useful when given where it might turn a tide, or help someone achieve something that might not otherwise be achieved. That requires the Prize Committee to make their best guess about where the Prize will do the most good.

    When giving the Prize to American Presidents, the Nobel Committee has traditionally erred by giving it too late in their political careers, rather than too early. Roosevelt and Wilson got the Prize near the ends of their second terms, when they were effectively lame ducks. Had they “earned” the Prize by that point? Sure. But they were also about to relinquish their political power and their role on the world stage. Those awards, as I argue in my earlier post, helped build the prestige of the Nobel Prize itself, but otherwise they achieved nothing. Giving Jimmy Carter the Nobel as a retired President makes a lot of sense as a recognition of secular sainthood, but it’s increased his effectiveness at doing good works only marginally, if at all. Giving it to him during his first term might (no one can say “would”) have led to more good being achieved. I too think Obama is getting the Prize too early, but too early is not nearly as big a problem as too late.

    Obama’s Prize reflects a calculation on the Prize Committee’s part that Obama has a window for achieving peace on several fronts, and that it was important to back him during that window. In fact, they may see that window as very narrow, and quick to close. They wanted to make sure to back him while it mattered, because they’re afraid that if they waited another year the opportunity might be lost. And the Prize also reflects their calculation that Obama is, during that window, the most important potential vehicle for promoting peace, so much that even giving him marginal assistance is likely to be more effective than backing any other potential winner. Various obscure nominees might have had their effectiveness increased tenfold by winning the Prize, but the Committee seems to think that making Obama even a little bit more effective at this moment will do more practical good than making some other nominees exponentially more effective. If all they do is strengthen Obama’s hand a little bit, the apparent reasoning goes, and allow him to achieve a little bit more than he would otherwise, that could make a huge difference. They know he hasn’t achieved much yet. And they’re not at all confident that he will. That’s why they gave him the Prize: because they’re not sure he’ll make it, and because they think he could use the help.



    "The point of the Nobel Peace Prize is to end war."

    This seems like an unfounded assumption to me. I believe that Nobel wanted to end war (who doesn't?), and I expect that he hoped the peace prize would help to end war, but it doesn't follow that the point of the prize is to end war. Consider the science prizes. I expect that Nobel hoped that the prizes would help advance science, but if the point of the prize were to advance science, then they would be given to promising researchers, not to old men and women who have completed their primary contributions to science. Yet Nobel's will specifies, for example, "one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics." The wording explicitly describes recognition for a past accomplishment.

    Similarly, the will also provides for "one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." This wording also describes recognition for past accomplishments.

    Arguably, Nobel's intent does not wholly determine the point of the prizes, as the Nobel Committee makes the actual selections. But if the Nobel Committee has determined that the point of the prize is to end war rather than to recognize accomplishments, it would represent a radical shift not only from Nobel's intention but also from past Committe practice. Even though past recipients may not have completed their contributions to world peace at the time they received their awards, they had all certainly contributed much. Obama, in contrast, has so far contributed little. Rather, he holds out the promise of contributing in the future. But to suggest that the point of the peace prize lies in the promise of contributions to world peace rather than in recognition of past contributions to world peace, strikes me as revisionist.

    …to the person who shall have done the…

    Since Nobel is clearly using the future semi-conditionally modified subinverted plagal past subjunctive intentional grammatical tense* there, the will stipulates the prize is for people who will have had a positive impact on peace in the past of the future.

    *Those not familiar with grammar associated with time travel might will have had to use the Googles to figure out what I was going to be talking about.

    Well, Genghis, I'm glad you keep me honest.

    On the other hand, if we stick to the terms of the bequest, most Peace Prize laureates, and indeed most other laureates, do not qualify. Indeed, by the strict standards of Nobel's will, Obama qualifies

    Note the wording of the past accomplishments that qualify nominees for the Peace Prize: "one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." By those standards, many revered Peace Prize winners do not qualify. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not primarily involved in any of those activities. Aung San Suu Kyii, Lech Walesa, and the Dalai Lama all received the award, as did MLK, for essentially domestic and internal, rather than international, politics. Certainly, none of them abolished or reduced a standing army.

    Moreover, the terms of Nobel's bequest specify a fund to underwrite "prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind." That's in the preceding year. Now, in practice none of the prizes are awarded for work done in the previous year. They have all become lifetime achievement awards. But if we hold to the terms of Nobel's will, considering the three activities he considers most peace-making, and limit consideration to acheivements between, say, October 2008 and October 2009, Obama would shape up nicely. He's certainly returned the US to international negotiations and peace organiztions with better faith, begun work on nuclear warhead reduction, and served as an ambassador of renewed international fraternity, most notably in Cairo. And historically, American statesmen have been given the prize for participation in international institutions.

    But in fact, the terms of the will are never strictly observed. To do so in the case of physics, chemistry, and medicine would not be feasible, since the most important discoveries are clear only after a certain period of time and scientific scrutiny. The same is true for economics, and while one could, perhaps, give the Literature Prize, as Nobel instructed, "to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction" during the previous year, the Swedish Academy also chooses to make the award to a lifetime's work rather than a once-in-a-lifetime work. Major works of literature are also easier to discern once the smoke clears.

    The science prizes and the economics prize do work to promote advances in thsoe fields, indirectly, after being absorbed into the standard structure of academic research and reward. (Universities want Nobel winners, and will fund labs to attract or produce them. Nobel laureates attract donations. Etc.) The Literature Prize also rewards long track-records of achievement, but is also to some degree an intervention by the Academy's part, choosing to reward specific national literatures or to consecrate a specific figure as a nation's international literary representative. (The choice of Dario Fo, I think in 1994, is a classic example of the Swedish Academy telling a country that, no, that writer is a much bigger deal than you think.)

    But the Nobel Prize for Peace has long been given for work in progress. Henry Stimson won it in 1912 for planning the World Court, which didn't happen until 1920.



    I think you mean Elihu Root. Henry Stimson directed the Manhattan Project and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not exactly peace prize material.

    I accept your critique of the implementation Nobel's. In this post-post-modern age, I was a bit hesitant about mentioning the author's will in the first place.

    But I think that the burden still lies on you to demonstrate a history of peace prize awards for people who have not already made substantial contributions to world peace (and justice). I'm not suggesting that the Nobel Committee has not considered the impact of the award and the future promise of the recipients, but to give the award in the absence of significant accomplishments seems highly unusual. Root seems like the exception, and even he had done more than Obama.

    Gah. yes. Elihu Root.

    (That's the second time latelyu I've blown a proper name in a response thread.)

    And maybe it's revisionist, but it does seem to be the Prize Committee's thinking. From the intro to Obama's speech:

    "The Committee came to the conclusion that it must still be possible to award the Nobel Peace Prize to a political leader. We cannot get the world on a safer track without political leadership. And time is short. Many have argued that the prize comes too early. But history can tell us a great deal about lost opportunities.

    It is now, today, that we have the opportunity to support President Obama's ideas. This year's prize is indeed a call to action to all of us."

    Agree with that or not. View it as traditionalist or revisionist, as you like. I'm just trying to explain what their position is.

    Whatever the Nobel committee intended, it gave Obama a chance to remind us that the thoughtful, inspiring orator of the election campaign still lives within the calculating, compromising politician that his day job requires him to be.

    Gotta agree with Newt Gingrich -- helluva speech:

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