President Obama and the Peace Prize

There are several ethical issues raised by the stunning announcement that President Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. More, perhaps, were raised by the reactions to it.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a cast member in a Hollywood movie of dubious quality. Personally, you think the director is in over his head and that the movie is an empty, pompous failure. To your amazement, however, critics like the film. It is a surprise winner at an international film festival, and the director wins the “Master Film-maker” prize. Are you outraged, or pleasantly surprised? Do you congratulate the director for the honor, or do you tell him he is an undeserving fraud? Do you feel pride for your own connection to the award—you were in the cast, after all—or do you feel resentment? I would think the answers to all these questions are obvious. The civil, fair, respectful and kind response, the Golden Rule response, is to feel pride because your leader and colleague has been recognized for an enterprise in which you played a role. You should offer congratulations, and mean it. Whatever doubts you may harbor about the judgment of the award-giving panel should remain unexplored and unexpressed until another day.

This is exactly the situation that Americans faced with Obama’s honor. He’s our president and leader, and the award honors us by honoring him. Regardless of our current feelings about his health care reform plans, war policies or choice of family dog, there is no reason not to applaud and feel good about his good fortune. Adversaries like GOP Chairman Michael Steele, who used the award to ridicule the gap between Obama’s aspirations and his accomplishments, show that they do not comprehend, or possess, the ethical values of civility, courtesy, decency, self-restraint, prudence, graciousness, empathy, and, yes, citizenship. We should be glad for anyone’s good fortune, even a stranger. This man is the elected leader of our nation, and to treat him worse than a stranger is indefensible.

Steele and the others who immediately protested Obama’s honor are little better than Kanye West, leaping on stage uninvited to scream to the audience that Taylor Swift, supposedly a professional colleague, didn’t deserve her MTV VMI award, as poor Swift stood ready to make her acceptance speech. West’s disgraceful conduct wouldn’t have been any more palatable or ethical if he were clearly correct. It was a miserable, unfair and disrespectful act toward a singer who had nothing to do with determining her honor, deserved or not.

All right: what about the Nobel committee? It may well have been wrong, as in mistaken. I do not believe its action was wrongful. Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s favorite speech-writer-turned columnist, called their honor “ a wicked award,” designed to manipulate U.S. foreign policy. I don’t think it is correct to call a sincere attempt to influence a nation’s foreign policy toward what a group believes will advance world peace “wicked.” Naïve, perhaps; misguided, maybe foolish. Even bizarre: why is Obama’s call for nuclear disarmament more praiseworthy than the similar calls by so many U.S. Presidents before him? Arguably, his is the least realistic and justified, for we are entering a time when rogue states and terrorist groups will have access to nuclear arms, hardly the wisest or safest time for us to give up our own.

As for the committee’s justification that President Obama has given the world hope for peace, this demonstrates a stubborn refusal by the Norwegians to learn from the past. President Woodrow Wilson was given a Nobel Peace Prize too, for the hope he created with his aspirations for a World War I peace treaty, and his bungled idealism greased the world’s slide into World War II. Faith healers create hope; con men create hope; liars and fools can create hope. Hope can blind people to reality, or lead them to dangerous complacency. I think the Nobel committee places far too much value on hope.

The real ethical dilemma posed by the award faces President Obama, if he is even slightly tempted to let the ideological message of the award interfere with his independent judgment as he makes decisions that must be in the best interests of the United States of America. The award is irrelevant, or should be, like every award. It is, like every award, arbitrary, biased, simplistic, and nice to have on one’s resume. Obama has nothing to “live up to” or justify; he doesn’t report to Norwegians. It should not make him feel inadequate or undeserving, nor should it make him feel anointed or validated. He ought to accept the prize, say thank-you, and forget it, just as all Americans should say, “Congratulations!” and leave it at that.

Then, with the encouragement, trust and respect of the American public, President Obama should do his job, the best he can, for as long as he is the president.

4 thoughts on “President Obama and the Peace Prize

  1. Heh. I found this entire episode to be humorous, both from the Right and Left.

    I think the Norwegians did President Obama no favors here. Every thinking person knows that the award was largely a honor bestowed upon a liberal by liberals, much as Al Gore’s award was. That’s a reality those of us who are not liberals will just have to deal with, and hope that everyone just accepts the award for what it has become — relatively meaningless. Frankly, I think your implication that it has always been so is correct.

    For the Right, what a stupid, brain-dead response. If only they would have accepted the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

    The proper response was, “Good for you, Mr. President.” Yes, maybe some commentary on the absurdity of the entire affair was justified, but honestly, this is one where President Obama’s detractors would have been better served by silence, or even better by a simple “Congratulations.”

  2. It was always meaningless, except that we thought it had meaning, which meant, I suppose, that it did. I remember being aware of the Peace Prize at a pretty young age. The UN used to be on TV a lot, and Dag Hammerskold, the U.N. Secretary, was a media star and a hero to a lot of us scared to death by the Cold War. When he died in a plane crash in 1961, the posthumous Peace Prize he received seemed the perfect tribute. Now, a similar gesture would be seen in the same light as the Democrats memorializing Ted Kennedy. That’s why the incident is sad: the Prize could be, and has been, a useful device to inspire and advocate peace. But the awards to Carter, Gore and now Obama have robbed it of any illusion of integrity, and it is just another award with a narrow agenda, the Golden Globes of the Nobel array. The ethics lesson is that integrity, once squandered, is almost impossible to get back. I’m happy for the President’s honor, but I can’t imagine ever caring about who the Nobel Peace Prize Committee thinks is worthy of the Award. Now even the illusion is gone, I fear forever.

    • I think that’s right. I recall admiring the Nobel Laureates in the Peace Prize category in my youth, as well.

      Sadly, that time appears, to quote a song, to be “Gone like a freight train, gone like yesterday …”

      I suppose we are left to lament the passing of another thing that used to inspire us. But President Obama is not to blame for that, nor Carter, nor Gore. But that doesn’t stop some from blaming them.

  3. Blaming them for the honor, and the damage it does to the honor, is certainly strange. It seems to be pure resentment: “I don’t like this individual; how dare he exist so that misguided people can admire him?” All you can blame the individual for, when he or she gets an unexpected windfall, is being here, or perhaps in the place you wish others (or yourself) had been. It isn’t jealousy, exactly, but it’s close. If my son were chosen “Ethicist of the Year,” I might be confused or annoyed, but wouldn’t I be generous enough to feel good about my son’s award? I certainly hope so. (But he’s still got to start finishing his homework…)

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