President Barack Obama today won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first sitting American president to win the award since Woodrow Wilson. As day broke across the United States, the International Nobel Committee announced the decision in Oslo, Norway—taking both foreign policy watchers and ordinary citizens by surprise.
The Nobel citation emphasized Obama’s efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament and reach out to the Muslim world:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.
…Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.
…The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.
The 108th annual award, which comes with a cash prize of $1.3 million, puts Obama in the company of diverse historical figures including Wilson, Anwar Sadat, Hugo Chavez, Henry Kissinger, Martin Luther King Jr., Yasser Arafat, Itzhak Rabin, former President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Al Gore. The Washington Post has a full list here.
The committee said Obama, a former state senator from Illinois, has made a remarkable leap to global prominence as the first African-American president of the United States—and has moved swiftly to establish his own brand of government and diplomacy in his first year in office.
Part of the surprise at the news stems from the domestic focus of Obama's political agenda for 2009—notably his ambitious stimulus package and plan to overhaul health care delivery in the US—and slowness to act on matters of international cooperation such as climate change. Still, hıs achıevements on nuclear securıty ıssues and engagement wıth Muslıms abroad in his dual speeches from Ankara, Turkey and Cairo, Egypt, have been well-receıved by the ınternatıonal communıty.
Nevertheless, just eight months into the Obama presidency, the honor may seem premature to some—including the White House, reportedly stunned when the news was delivered today.
Nobel Committee chair Thorbjoern Jagland said Friday: "We have not given the prize for what may happen in the future. We are awarding Obama for what he has done in the past year. And we are hoping this may contribute a little bit for what he is trying to do."
The president's many vocal critics, however, may cast the Peace Prize, typically the type of recognition reserved for an outgoing statesperson or remarkable human rights figure, as a participation award—the default appreciation of a world glad to be rid of former President George W. Bush. In recent years, though, the prizes for literature and economics, as well as the Peace Prize, have been awarded to political favorites of the Norwegian organization—from climate change activist Gore (2007) to New York Times columnist and strident Bush critic Paul Krugman (2008) to this year's literature honoree, German-Romanian protest writer, Herta Müller.
Obama's win over 205 other nominees signals strong international approval for the president facing a host of tough crises at home and abroad. The citation's emphasis on the United Nations, which the Bush administration had scorned, and whose importance Obama strongly affirmed with his speech before the UN late last month, speaks to this appreciation.
It remains to be seen if a peace prize will bring peace to the burning places of the world in which the United States finds itself entangled.
If anything, the Nobel committee today set the bar sky-high for tangible accomplishments on foreign affairs in the next three to seven years of Obama's presidency.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.