Nobel Honors Hope of Things to Come
Why did the Nobel Committee give Barack Obama the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office? Were committee members just expressing their relief at the departure of the bellicose policies of George Bush? Were they simply gaga over Obama’s celebrity status? In this country, conservatives jeered, suggesting that Obama had done nothing to deserve the award and would be well-advised to refuse it. Their bitter partisanship was revealing, but many commentators questioned whether the president had accomplished enough to deserve the award.
Take another look. The Nobel Peace Prize was instituted by Swedish industrialist and inventor Alfred Nobel, to be awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses” over the previous year.
Its recipients have included the Rev. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, Jimmy Carter, and Kofi Annan. So why Obama?
The committee hailed Obama because, as it said in a statement, “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” Fellow laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said, “It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama’s message of hope.”
Cynics dismiss hope as an illusion. Hope is merely raising expectations that will be dashed on the hard rocks of reality. It is a reflection of speeches, not actions.
No one would doubt that Obama has powerfully called on the world to move to a new day. He has summoned the world not simply to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but to move toward nuclear disarmament, with the U.S. and Russia taking the first steps. He has challenged Israel and the Palestinians to move beyond hatred toward peace and mutual security. He has offered pariah nations like Iran and North Korea a new chance for dialogue and negotiations. He has vowed to close Guantanamo and to end our involvement in torture. He has successfully urged the world’s developed nations to join together to counter the global downturn and provide assistance for the poorest nations. He has pledged to make America a leader, not a laggard, in the global drive to combat catastrophic climate change.
Attitudes toward America — and attitudes toward what is possible — have been transformed across the world. Obama has stirred the hopes of peoples across the globe.
It is a measure of how bitter and partisan our politics have become that conservatives, many of whom proclaim their religious faith, are so dismissive of this accomplishment.
They should know, more than others, that hope is not an illusion; it is a powerful force in human affairs, for it is the foundation of faith. The Bible teaches us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things unseen.” It is only with faith in what we hope for that we can summon the will to act against injustice, against war, against “standing armies.”
The award, some say, will put pressure on Obama to push forward. Surely that is the purpose of the committee in awarding it. They want to recognize how much hope he has engendered, and challenge him to live up to that hope. This is a particularly timely award as the president decides his course on disarmament, on climate change, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, in relation to North Korea and Iran.
As Americans, we should take pride in the fact that the American president has been honored with this recognition. As people yearning for peace, we should hope that the award encourages the president to do more, to reach further, and to act more boldly in its cause. As a nation mired in two wars, burdened with a costly military deployed in bases across the world, we have the greatest stake in pursuing peace and disarmament. Let us applaud the president for the stunning accomplishment of his first months in office, even as we press him to fulfill the message of hope he has brought to the world.