Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize and the Power of Ideas

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the October 12, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

People everywhere were surprised, even shocked, that President Obama obtained the Nobel Peace Prize.

Many said that giving the Peace Prize to Obama was premature.  Others said the award was undeserved.  President Obama himself said that: “To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize, men and women who’ve inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.”  Of course, Mr. Obama was just being modest; his being self-deprecatory was his way of showing humility.

Yet quite a few pundits were critical.

Echoing the line that Obama’s peace prize was premature, Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said that Obama “will be embarrassed by it, and it will be unhelpful in the domestic milieu.”

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times bluntly asked: “What has he done?”  Kristof also asked, “shouldn’t the Nobel Peace Prize have a higher bar than high expectations?”

Harsher still was the commentary of TIME’s Mark Halperin: “The stunning decision to award him the Nobel Peace Prize for, basically, his rhetoric, will almost certainly infuriate his detractors in America more than it will delight his supporters.”

From the far Left, Mr. Obama is criticized for conducting war in Afghanistan and presiding over an imperial United States. From the far Right, he is vilified for being a “socialist,” for having accomplished nothing. Unfortunately, many of these ideologues are lunatics, dismissing the real world and being obsessed with never-never land.

But the detractors miss the point.

In the first place, President Obama has taken very concrete, significant steps to achieve world peace.  Let’s not forget the old saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a small step.  Mr Obama, or his administration has set in motion a process of having a nuke-free world, arresting climate change, diplomatically engaging countries belonging to what his predecessor called “axis of evil,” building a true state of Palestine and putting pressure on Israel to end the Palestinian occupation, closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, and making human rights violators of the previous administration accountable for their wrongdoing.

It’s easier to celebrate the outcomes than the tedious, disputable, painful zigzag processes that lead to such outcomes.  The point is, we likewise celebrate the milestones.  Giving recognition to the processes is a way of helping secure the outcomes.

A couple of economic concepts are relevant here.  The first is the role of incentives.  To quote, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the award given to Mr. Obama is an “incentive to the president and to us all.” The Peace Prize gives President Obama a motivation, an impetus to intensify the work for global peace.  It puts pressure on him not to backtrack, even though it has to be acknowledged that he’s not the only variable in shaping the world.

The second economic concept is signaling. The prestigious, highly reputable Nobel Committee knows how to play real politics. Here, the Nobel Committee, sensitive to international opinion, serves as an agent to indirectly inform the movers of the world, to be serious about creating “a new climate in international politics.” It is a new climate that is conducive to multilateral diplomacy, dialogue and negotiations, a climate favorable to strengthening democracy and human rights.

In turn, having won the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Obama has stronger credentials that make him more credible and respected as he negotiates even with the most recalcitrant parties.  The signal is that Mr. Obama has the ability to negotiate outcomes that will be satisfactory to all.

The lesson is that rewarding ideas and processes to actualize the ideas are as important as awarding outcomes. Obama’s beliefs in multilateralism and negotiations based on mutual respect, in denouncing torture and human rights violations, and in securing global public goods are nothing new.  But because they have either been undermined or rejected by previous administrations of the most powerful country on earth, especially the George W. Bush presidency, such ideas deserve honor and recognition.

Here in the Philippines, we are again emphasizing an old, familiar belief—this one about having a decent and honest government.  A clean government by itself will not bring prosperity to our country. Yet because we have seen again how a bad and corrupt government can destroy a country, we have rediscovered the values of decency, transparency, and integrity of elected officials. Such values, now expressed in the candidacy of Noynoy Aquino, are transformative (to use President Obama’s word). Such values deserve to be rewarded.

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