Nobel invests hope in leadership

U.S. President Barack Obama has won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize after less than nine months in office. His critics at home and abroad say the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision came too early since Mr. Obama cannot yet claim any concrete achievement in dealing with challenging global issues.

But since Mr. Obama took office in January, a “new climate in international politics” has set in, as the committee said, and the image of the U.S. has changed for the better.

The committee’s decision to bestow the Peace Prize on Mr. Obama indicates its hope and expectation that doing so will provide impetus to his and the international community’s efforts to resolve those issues, especially nuclear disarmament and the fight against global warming. In a sense, great responsibility has been placed on Mr. Obama to strive even harder for concrete results.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Mr. Obama: “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.” It attached special importance to Mr. Obama’s “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” and to the “more constructive role” that the Obama administration is playing “in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting.”

Mr. Obama’s overall diplomatic approach also received high praise from the committee. “Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play,” the committee said. “Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.”

The committee must have found in Mr. Obama someone who can realize its ideals. It said, “For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman.” In a sense, the statement reflects strong criticism of Mr. Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush’s unilateral approach, exemplified by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — a subtext that has angered rightwing foes of Mr. Obama.

Apparently, the committee’s decision caught Mr. Obama by surprise. In his remarks in the White House’s Rose Garden, he said: “Well, this is not how I expected to wake up this morning . . . I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee.”

He clearly understands the committee’s expectations of him. He said, “I do not view it (the Nobel Committee’s decision) as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.” He also said, “And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.”

It will not be easy for Mr. Obama to live up to the committee’s expectations, given the degree to which the interests of nations conflict in international politics. On the diplomatic front, he has not yet found solutions to problems in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Iran and North Korea. At home he has to improve the economy and prevail in a fierce debate over health care reform.

But a cynical attitude toward Mr. Obama’s winning of the Peace Prize will only aggravate problems the world is facing. Mr. Obama’s prize should be taken as a cue by world leaders to persevere and work together to build a better world. The committee’s mention of a world without nuclear weapons raises hopes for survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bomb attacks and other people wishing to see nuclear weapons abolished.

Mr. Obama’s speech in Prague in April generated global momentum toward nuclear disarmament. In that speech, he underlined the right of people everywhere to live free from the fear of nuclear weapons in the 21st century, declaring that “as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.”

In September, the U.N. Security Council, under Mr. Obama’s leadership, unanimously adopted a resolution “to seek a safer world for all and create conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.” But the U.S. must successfully conclude a treaty to succeed START-1 (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty-1) with Russia by yearend. The U.S. has not yet ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The world must successfully hold a review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty next year.

The international community also has to work out a post-Kyoto Protocol framework to effectively combat global warming. Mr. Obama’s winning of the Peace Prize could motivate Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and other leaders to work with him constructively in tacking such issues.