The Nobel Committee’s choice of a wartime president for its Peace Prize produced uncertainty and controversy at precisely the time when these are the last things the world really needs.
The traditional impression of Nobel Peace Prize winners is that of a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who led a sea change in civil rights but did so proclaiming non-violence as a path to those rights. It is of a John Hume David Trimble, who found a way to bring the Catholic and Protestant factions of Northern Ireland together and end the generations of violence that so long plagued that land. And it is of a Lester B. Pearson, who brought pride to Canada and relief to the world when, as minister of external affairs, he helped to avert war in Suez in 1956 and established the concept of United Nations peacekeeping.
Avoiding war and ending it; eschewing violence and facilitating peace have been the hallmarks of the prize awarded each December in Oslo. But in selecting U.S. President Barack Obama for the honor this year, at a time when he leads a nation at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Nobel Committee has broken new ground. No Nobel Laureate has ever accepted the prize while waging war, no matter how vile the enemy or righteous the cause. And certainly no one has accepted it having just escalated the number of troops involved.
In accepting his award today in Oslo, Mr. Obama gave a speech that was both strong and humble, inspiring and reassuring. But in advancing the idea that some wars are necessary to defend the peace; that some enemies are so threatening that they need to be eradicated, however indisputable that is, he took the Nobel Committee into territory where it, and no other recipient, has ever gone before.
Perhaps it is a view of the world that will be sustained over time and winners of the iconic prize for peace will be warriors engaged in battle. It may be that peace is about more than non-violence, and that the use of force is both justified and demanded when there is a moral imperative to act. There have been occasions in recent years – Bosnia and Darfur come to mind – when the West was too slow to intervene in the face of the atrocities that were occurring. On the other hand, perhaps this will be seen as an aberration and the view will be reasserted that the quest for peace should be something unique, that war offers no sure guarantee of peace, and, at the very least, that the recipient should not be leading a nation at war.
As we suggested when the award was announced to a stunned world months ago, none of this is Mr. Obama’s fault. He did not ask for this prize. He sought not to offend anyone in accepting it, and to honor those who have come before him. He gave a fine speech. But it does seem that, if one is to take things like the Nobel Prize for Peace seriously, the custodians of it may have unleashed precedents and raised questions that make the world – and their section of it, especially – more complicated.
Times of sea change, which by any economic or geopolitical measure this juncture in the 21st century surely is, also need their quiet harbors of calm and predictability. It would be churlish not to congratulate Mr. Obama on his achievement and acknowledge the skill and forthright manner in which he tackled the inherent conflicts between peace and war. But the fact is that this was an award that produced uncertainty and controversy at precisely the time when these are the last things the world really needs.