OSLO, Norway — It was a shocking decision to say the least. When Thorbjoern Jagland, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, stepped in front of the microphone at the Nobel Institute and announced that Barack Obama was this year's Nobel peace prize laureate, the news was greeted with gasps of astonishment by the journalists assembled at the announcement.
The U.S. president had not been touted a favorite. It was known that it had been nominated, but most observers had not named him as a serious contender. In the hours immediately prior to the news, however, the rumor mill had gone in full tilt in favor of Obama. No one thought it would actually be possible since Obama has been in power for less than a year and had few concrete achievements to his name.
But the committee said that he was the person to contribute the most to peace in the last year — a key criteria of Alfred Nobel's will — by putting emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, rather than unilateral military action.
"It was unavoidable to give the prize to the man who has improved the international climate and emphasized negotiations and dialogue," Jagland told GlobalPost.
His colleague on the committee, secretary Geir Lundestad, concurred, saying that Obama had achieved a lot already.
"We want to emphasize that he has already brought significant changes," Lundestad told GlobalPost, citing Obama's focus on multilateral institutions, dialogue and negotiations, arms control and nuclear disarmament, as well as the environment. "All these things have already taken place and this already has had a very significant impact on international relations."
He added: "We do of course hope that there will be many concrete changes over the years, but when a president makes all these changes on these ideals, which are the ideals the Norwegian Nobel Committee has had for 100 years, we felt it was right to strengthen him as much as we can in this further struggle for these ideals."
Isn't it contradictory to give the peace prize to a president who is considering increasing troops in Afghanistan? Jagland said that the ongoing war should not obscure Obama's achievements. "The decision to go into Afghanistan had a unanimous U.N. mandate. The conflict concerns us all — this is not only the responsibility of Barack Obama," he said. "Hopefully the improved international climate [Obama has fostered] could help resolve the conflict in Afghanistan." The decision shows the committee's determination to have a major impact on international affairs. Which is not surprising when one knows the committee is composed of former members of parliament and government. The chair of the committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, is a former prime minister. He is now the president of the Council of Europe.
This was his first Nobel laureate as chair of the committee. He was expected by many to make a shock prize and it has been said that he wanted a big name. With Barack Obama, he certainly has.
It may seem shocking to many that the committee decides to reward someone who has yet to achieve anything concrete.
But they have done it many times in the past, for instance by rewarding West German chancellor Willy Brandt in the early stages of his policy of engagement with East Germany.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee is keen to impact on current political processes and will want to see progress on issues as diverse as nuclear disarmament, the conclusion of a climate treaty in Copenhagen or the increased use of multilateral institutions like the UN — which Norway is very supportive of — as a tool for international diplomacy.
They want to strengthen Obama's hand and encourage him in the direction of peaceful dialogue and negotiations. Let's hope it works.