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A Nobel prize that rides on the future

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Oct. 11, 2009 at 6:42 pm |
October 12, 2009 8:04 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

At this point, Barack Obama – president and now Nobel laureate – lacks only canonization as a saint.

Normally that is bestowed only after rigor mortis sets in, but if the Vatican follows the lead of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Obama could snag at least beatification by the end of his first term.

The timing of Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize was indeed a shock. Even some of his admirers were calling it premature. There had been a lot of talk of the prize going to Chinese human rights advocate Hu Jia, who has a considerable history of courageous, effective activism in the face of a hostile dictatorship. Obama – who isn’t nine months into his presidency – has no such record.

He said as much Friday, when he expressed his own surprise at the honor and acknowledged it was not a recognition of concrete achievement.

Obama’s Nobel feels more like a publisher’s advance, like the multimillion-dollar one he’s likely to get one day on the expectation that he’ll deliver something well worth reading. Or a big loan to a promising entrepreneur.

The committee that bestows this honor leans decidedly to the left these days; its Labor/Socialist majority may hope the prize will point American foreign policy in the same direction. A sort of preemptive strike against the pursuit of American interests by military and other unpleasant means.

What the committee’s chairman said out loud, though, was that Obama was being recognized for his vision of nuclear disarmament and the “new climate in international politics” he has fostered.

You could read that as a Nobel for not being George W. Bush. “Vision” and “climate” are distinctly intangible. But – since this honor is also an honor of the United States and its global leadership – let’s give intangibles their due.

Ideals, optimism, words, attitudes, hope and other software of the human mind are the foundation of civilization’s hardware – cities, arsenals, treaties, etc. Last year’s near-collapse of the international financial system, for example, was fueled by an evaporation of confidence, another intangible not to be scoffed at.

Obama has yet to secure sanctions against Iran, let alone an end to its dangerous nuclear program. He’s yet to secure even his own government’s commitment to a serious international climate-change agreement. He has yet to do a lot of good things that he’s promised to do.

But he has – at least for the time being – enhanced the world’s opinion of the United States. In doing so, he may have enhanced the possibility that other nations will follow American leadership on initiatives important to humanity.

Intangibles create facts. If Obama’s leadership does lead to realities of genuine peace, this Nobel will be seen as thoroughly justified in retrospect.

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