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.