Sunday, October 11, 2009

Proud to be an American

I am proud that an American has been once again awarded the Nobel Peace prize. And who could be more worthy than Barack Obama, because he has...uh...he has...well, someday he might do something for peace.

Okay, the award is officially meaningless. It has been meaningless for some time now, really. If Al Gore can get the award for fussing about global warming, it pretty clearly has nothing to do with peace. That's not even to consider the granting of the award to crooks and terrorists like Yasser Arafat and Le Duc Tho.

If you think about it, though, the whole idea of a prize for peace is somewhat problematic. Statesmen only make peace when they think it is in their interests. Unilateral capitulation is not a way to advance peace in the long run, but rather a way to invite war. So it is difficult to give the award to statesmen. On the other hand, people with utopian peace ideas don't really do anything to advance peace, either.

I read an interesting book, Champions of Peace, that discusses the history of the prize and this basic problem. Nobel created the prize partly because he felt guilty about developing a military technology (even though TNT also has plenty of peaceful uses). From the beginning, the committee has waffled concerning what kind of achievements to use as the basis of the prize. Thus, Bertha von Suttner won in 1905 for her radical pacifist (and completely ineffective) ideas, while Theodore Roosevelt won the very next year for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese war. The committee has often given the award to individuals or groups for doing humanitarian work, which has nothing to do with peace, really, but we can all feel good about it -- and those groups can certainly put the prize money to good use.

Up until this year, the prize had always at least gone to someone for alleged accomplishments; Obama is the first to be given the prize exclusively in the hope that it would help him advance his agenda. Some people have said that it will restrict his options as president, but I doubt that. The prize is $1.4 million and an endorsement from a meaningless committee of Norwegian politicians; no one is going to alter his behaviour on that basis. While I don't think it would shock world opinion were Obama to turn it down, as some have suggested, neither do I think it would really help matters. My recommendation would be to accept the prize and say that he hopes to live up to its endorsement, which I'm sure is pretty much what he will do. The money, however, could be better donated to one of the humanitarian groups that were nominated. Obama doesn't need $1.4 million, and those groups definitely do. He might give the money to charity (I have no idea what his plans are), but it would be best if it was a charity relating to the peace prize. He can respect the public honour that he has been given while still putting the money to good use.

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