Joe Ellis on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize

Friday, October 16, 2009 - 12:00

Questioning Authority asked Joe Ellis, presidential historian and Professor of History on the Ford Foundation, for his thoughts on President Barack Obama winning this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Here’s what he had to say.

QA: Some commentators have suggested that giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama was an indirect way of condemning George W. Bush. Is there more to it than that? What does the award signify about western Europe's feelings for Obama?

JE: My sense is that the award does reflect the prevailing sense of relief throughout Western Europe that an adult is once again in charge of U.S. foreign policy. I don't think the media has adequately reported on the depth of disaffection toward George W. Bush and his (or Dick Cheney's) conspicuous contempt for any real dialogue with our erstwhile allies. Obama's embrace of a multilateral foreign policy, U.S. leadership on both global warming and the global financial crisis, and his outreach to the Muslim world all are seen as a return to a longstanding inclusive version of American leadership on the international front that has been missing for at least eight years.

QA: Obama is the third American president to win the Nobel Peace Prize while in office (Jimmy Carter won it after serving as president). How does Obama measure up to the others?

JE: The other presidents won for quite specific achievements. Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the end of the Russian-Japan war. Woodrow Wilson was the chief architect of the Versailles Treaty. Jimmy Carter negotiated the peace pact between Israel and Egypt. Obama has no analogous achievement. He himself acknowledged this fact in his speech right after the prize was announced. The premature character of the award puts Obama in an awkward position, and again he fully realizes this, for the level of expectation as president has now been raised.

QA: Is winning the Nobel Peace Prize an advantage or a liability to Obama?

JE: The answer to this question depends on future events. If he achieves a breakthrough in our relations with Iran, or on the Palestinian question and Israel, or brokers a new global warming agreement that upgrades Kyoto, the Nobel Prize will appear prescient. If he takes us over the abyss in Afghanistan, it will appear misguided and ridiculous.

QA: Does the award give Obama increased authority in the world arena? What might he do under that authority that he wouldn't have done otherwise?

JE: It seems the award only confirms, and makes more palpable, his high standing in world opinion, which is in fact higher than his poll numbers in the U.S. Whether it will influence his decision on Afghanistan is unclear. I suspect not. It does make his international responsibilities more pressing. It ups the ante to pass legislation for a carbon tax, which is essential if he wants to lead on the issue globally. I don't think it enhances his authority so much as the stakes in any game in which he plays. The award was really a bet on Obama's prospects for greatness, which remain at present only possible and problematic.

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