Friday, October 9, 2009

On Nobel Prizes

You don’t expect to know the names of the people who win the Nobel prizes in chemistry, medicine, or physics. You count yourself well-informed if you knew anything the particular discovery that prompted the award. You expect to know the name of the person who wins the Nobel Prize for literature, and once again, I have been disappointed, and suspect I will continue to be as long the prize continues to be awarded to European authors who haven’t been much translated into English. (Hang in there, Philip Roth and Amos Oz. )

You never know about Peace Prize, what the criteria are, and why it doesn’t go to the Quakers or some other pacifist organization every year. And when it is awarded to the commander in chief of the world’s largest and most powerful military, currently conducting at least two major wars, the message can become unclear. But the message in awarding Obama the peace prize is simple. It is a thank you note to the American people for ridding the world of the hyper-militaristic and chauvinistic Bush administration, and not electing John McCain. It is an award to America for rejoining the concert of nations. It is an award for not making things any worse, which America is uniquely positioned to do. It is an award of encouragement, calling on America to do the right thing.
The most obvious criticism of the award will be that it is premature. (And the most obvious pleasure will be to see the right fulminate about the prize.) But when it comes to America’s responsibility for keeping the world peaceful, it can’t be awarded soon enough. Obama’s presidency at home has become mired in health care and other debates, and many progressives have begun to wonder about his priorities, and the bloom is off the rose. This is a healthy debate, but the award is a reminder of the way the rest of the world views America, and as Obama ponders what to do in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Israel and Palestine, I hope he remembers that what the world expects him to do is to keep the peace, end wars, and leave office with a safer, less vicious, less nasty world. This won’t be accomplished by easy political compromises or taking paths of least resistance. The American people, and now the world, are holding Obama to higher standards than those usually imposed on politicians. Whether this is fair or not can be debated. What cannot be is that if Obama fails to deliver on his promise, he will be the most disappointing president since the last sitting president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, one Woodrow Wilson.

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