The Nobel Committee's decision to award its 2009 Peace Prize to President Barack Obama to recognize his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" is more than a little puzzling.
Don't get me wrong-I am not among those who want to see the president fail. America can't afford it and putting political point-scoring ahead of American national interests is despicable. But what has Mr. Obama actually accomplished for world peace? The United States is withdrawing from Iraq, but the results won't be clear for some time. The administration is still looking at its options in Afghanistan. Nothing noteworthy has happened on Iran, North Korea, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, arms control or Russia.
Some say that the prize is predominantly a repudiation of former President George W. Bush and his foreign-policy approach, which was widely resented outside the United States. Fine. The Nobel Committee has always been political and is entitled to use the Peace Prize, or any of its other prizes, to send messages. But is implicit criticism of Bush-who is not only out of office, but laying low-really the best they can do? Aren't there at least a few people who have actually done something tangible to build peace whose selection could send the same message, if that's really what the Nobel people want to say?
Others have argued that Mr. Obama's selection is meant to encourage him and even to challenge him to do more to live up to his rhetoric. That may also be a legitimate reason for making the award-but if so, those making the selection may have made a major miscalculation. Giving the Prize to the president is not likely to make it any easier for him in American domestic politics, upon which his ultimate success will depend very heavily. Instead, it will be a distraction both now-while the Afghanistan debate is raging, and the administration needs to make key decisions-and later in the year, when the president will presumably be expected to collect the prize in Oslo. It seems likely to come up again when Mr. Obama runs for reelection, which he will presumably do. The bottom line is that in the current U.S. political environment, the award seems likely to polarize rather than unite Americans and will likely produce unpleasant unintended consequences.
This leads to a final question. If European liberals like the Nobel Committee really want to help Obama, couldn't they find a way to do something substantive rather than symbolic? Pressing their governments to offer more help the United States in Afghanistan would be a good start. Who knows what might happen then? If they manage to provide real assistance to America in addressing some of the world's major problems, they might get some kind of prize. Maybe best supporting actor.
Paul J. Saunders, Executive Director of The Nixon Center, is the associate publisher of The National Interest.