What the Nobel Peace Prize Means to America

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Wow. What a day. Unless you are under a rock, you know by now that President Obama has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize (EPI’s Board Member, Lloyd Axworthy, was nominated for the same prize back in 1997). The Peace Prize is one of the most significant international awards, having been awarded approximately 100 times since 1901 (it was not awarded during WWII). During the past decade, three Americans have received the Nobel Peace Prize: Obama this morning; Al Gore in 2007, and former President Jimmy Carter in 2002).

The announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize, which broke at about 6am EST today, has already led to a breadth of comments from across the political spectrum. On CNN, email comments from viewers range from “I’m proud of America,” to “What has this President done except run for office?” Some comments are expectedly mean in tone, which isn’t at all surprising given recent rants by Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh (the future NFL owner?).

It can and is being argued whether the Nobel Peace Prize was prematurely awarded to President Obama. He has only been in office for nine months. One does wonder why his nomination was kept secret from the public, but quite often we never know until the announcement. According to the Oslo-based organization, the Peace Prize was award to Obama for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” (see the full press release here). In knowing that critics would possibly argue that President Obama is relatively green to the international game, the Nobel Committee commented that the Prize was award not for what he will do, but what he has already done in his brief tenure. Further translated, they awarded the Prize to Obama for the change in tenor from the US over the last year. Argue if you will the merits of this President, the US has most certainly reemerged as an international leader, especially with regard to human rights and inclusiveness, with Obama specifically reaching out to the Muslim community.

The next several days will feature plenty of talking heads espousing the merit of this honor to the President. And they will run the gamut. There will be platitudes and there will be excessive examples of hate toward the President. Expect it, because this is what the political system and discourse has become in the United States. I wrote about this only a few weeks ago, and my bet is you will find that there will be an unbelievable amount of anti-Obama commentaries. Expect to see excerpts today from Limbaugh, for instance.

While I am often too cynical to hope we can leverage events into global goodwill, perhaps we can emerge and continue to show the world that the US is back; that we are committed to a United Nations that serves all countries and all peoples. This is not meant to paint a dark picture of the Bush Administration, but without doubt, the “You’re with us or against us” mentality did much to reduce the value of what we have to offer to the world.

Regardless of political bent, we have the opportunity to restore the image of the United States as a leader is the global dialogue. We need this to happen if we really care about this society and the US economy. But the world needs a strong United States presence, as long as that presence is focused on inclusion rather than exclusion. As a Canadian who has lived in the US for the past two decades, I have always wanted the US to be more “Canadian:” the kinder, gentler nation that former President George Herbert Walker Bush urged the US to become. But we unfortunately walked the other way during the 2000s.

Last week I was fortunate to see U2 play at FedEx Field in Washington, DC. I was surprised and pleased to see Bono, the defacto world leader on humanitarian issues, praise President Bush (43) for increasing the funding for AIDS vaccines to Africa. Politics matter, but expanding the role of the United States in the world doesn’t need to be. We need to regain our role within the United Nations and show that the US exemplifies the diversity illustrated through that group. The US is, in many ways, the United Nations, as personified in our universities and communities across the country. But we have a long way to go to restore our place, given what we have done to the world economy.

A Nobel Peace Prize helps.

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