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Nobel nod carries heavy burden

Posted: Sunday, October 11, 2009

Barack Obama - president and Nobel laureate. Not bad for a fellow just five years removed from the Illinois Senate. But caveat victor: The president may soon regret having won this honor, and the Nobel committee may regret having awarded it to him.

First, let's dispense with the usual criticisms. Yes, the award was politically motivated. But the Peace Prize has always sought to further a particular liberal vision in world affairs. (This wasn't even the first time the committee has implicitly criticized the Bush administration: Jimmy Carter's award in 2002, hailing the principles of "mediation and international cooperation," came just as the Bush White House was flexing its muscles toward Iraq.)

And sure, Obama unquestionably won more for his aspirations than his accomplishments - a fact the president acknowledged Friday - but aspiration has marked more than three-quarters of peace prizes since the end of the Cold War. Consider the 1994 award to a trio of Middle East would-be peacemakers, or the 1996 prize to two East Timorese activists. Obama may represent an extreme end of the aspiration spectrum, but he's hardly an outlier.

The real problem with the peace prize, as past laureates have discovered, is that winning isn't all it's cracked up to be. The prize can backfire against the honorees and their causes. In Obama's case, the Nobel may have the opposite effect of what the Oslo crowd hopes for. It may make Obama more inclined to speak loudly and carry a big stick on the world stage - an odd result for a new Nobel peace laureate.

In the past, the Nobel committee has insisted that the award advances the causes of the winners in subtle but powerful ways: It raises the profile of organizations, individuals and issues, bolsters support for peaceful conflict resolution and focuses international attention and opprobrium against repressive regimes.

Sounds great, except that the prize has rarely done much to produce sustained global media attention to neglected causes. Nor has it provided much impetus to incipient or ongoing peace processes. Worse still, dissidents and democracy advocates honored by the Nobel committee - a category of winners that has grown in the past two decades - have found themselves, and especially their missions, the targets of nervous and repressive states.

Just ask the Tibetans, who suffered a brutal Chinese crackdown after the Dalai Lama was honored in 1989. Or Burmese democracy activists who experienced intensified harassment, imprisonment and military assault after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won the prize in 1991. Or liberal reformers in Iran, who found themselves under a relentless conservative onslaught after fellow reformer Shirin Ebadi was named a Nobel laureate in 2003. In all these cases, the Nobel Prize - and, for that matter, the sympathy and outrage of the international community - offered scant protection when the regime's henchmen came knocking.

At best, the Nobel Peace Prize changes little. At worst, it sets off political dynamics that produce exactly the opposite effect of that desired by the Nobel committee.

Obama is hardly a vulnerable liberal activist in an authoritarian regime. But he should be worried - and sophisticated politician that he is, he will worry - about how the Nobel will reverberate at home. To those enthralled with the president, the prize signals America's return to global leadership after the Bush administration. But to the growing number of Americans less pleased with Obama, the award is a warning sign. After all, if the international community thinks so highly of him, perhaps it is because he shares their ultra-liberal agenda (as many Americans see it); perhaps it is because he cares more deeply about global causes than vital U.S. interests. For Obama's defenders, the peace prize confirms their faith. For his detractors, it stokes their fear.

The president has been sensitive to accusations of dovishness, and he has been eager to prove his hawkish credentials. Afghanistan is a case in point. Meanwhile, time after time on other issues - such as the economic stimulus package, health care and Iraq - he has tacked to the center, much to the frustration of his most avid supporters. The Nobel Prize won't make life at home any easier. Here, the award is a political liability, suggesting to voters that Obama is not only a closet socialist - as critics of the stimulus and of health-care reform often contend - but perhaps a peacenik as well.

How might Obama respond? He will seek to counteract that impression, as he must if he is to retain relevance in an American political environment still deeply shaped by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Rather than release his inner dove, the Nobel Peace Prize may force him to brandish his public hawk. The administration's dithering on Afghanistan may come to an abrupt end, with a decision approximating Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for more troops. Or the president may feel compelled to buck the international community on some salient issue just to show that he is more loyal to American interests than to any cosmopolitan dream.

The Nobel committee probably imagined that the prize would propel Obama to new heights of diplomacy and peacemaking. But as the president takes steps to counter the award's political confines, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize may come to undermine the vision of a cooperative, multilateral, nuclear-free world that the committee attributed to him, rather than impart momentum to his efforts to promote such a place.

The committee, given its political tone-deafness and naivete, will probably never regard the 2009 award as a mistake. But Obama may soon come to see the peace prize as a burden he'd have rather not borne.

• Ronald Krebs is an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. His study "A Perilous Prize? The False Promise of the Nobel Peace Prize" is forthcoming in Political Science Quarterly.



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