A triumph of hope over achievement

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Senior advisers to Barack Obama were said to be “stunned” by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the US president. So they should be. The award is wildly premature.

The Nobel committee said that Mr Obama was being rewarded for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy”. But school children are given prizes for “effort”. International statesmen are normally held to a higher standard.

The award is not only premature. It may also come to seem tragically paradoxical, if the big foreign initiative of Mr Obama’s first term turns out to be an expansion of the war in Afghanistan. The president has already dispatched 21,000 more troops to the front. On the very day that he got the good news from Oslo, he was due to meet his advisers to discuss the military’s request for a further 40,000 soldiers for the Afghan war. If Mr Obama accepts even half this request he risks ending up as a president defined by a war, rather than by peace-making.

The Nobel citation lists various good works already performed by the president. In particular, it applauds his “vision of and work for a nuclear-free world”. But this is still very much just a vision. As Mr Obama acknowledged in a speech in Prague this year, it is a goal that may not be achieved in his lifetime.

The committee also praises the president’s commitment to “multilateral diplomacy”, as well as his position on climate change and his promotion of democracy and human rights.

Let’s take those ideas, one by one. The success of the G20 summits is one of the most promising developments in multilateral diplomacy for many years. But the first G20 summit was convened and hosted by the devil incarnate – otherwise known as George W. Bush. Even under an Obama presidency there is not much sign that the UN is going to be any more united or effective. Mr Obama has certainly changed American rhetoric about climate change. But he is having huge difficulty building a political consensus around a US position likely to satisfy America’s negotiating partners at the climate change conference in Copenhagen.

As for democracy – if anything, Mr Obama has toned down the democratic evangelism of the Bush years. Only when it comes to human rights can the Nobel committee legitimately point to substantial changes. The Obama administration’s decision to ban torture and to close the prison camp at Guantánamo are genuinely laudable developments.

And then there are the difficult issues that the Nobel committee skated around: the Middle East and Iran. Mr Obama has made high-profile efforts to promote peace on both fronts. But, so far, he has little to show for the effort.

Perhaps the committee came closest to the truth when it cited the way in which he has “captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future”. The decision to award the prize to Mr Obama is a triumph of hope over achievement.

Mr Obama has certainly transformed the image of the US presidency around the world and particularly in Europe. But it will take more than a few months of his presidency to judge if it is worthy of a Nobel prize.

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