It is difficult not to feel ambivalent about the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama. It turns out that the “we” in “Yes, We Can” was even broader than the 53 percent of Americans who voted for him last November. But, while I count myself as a fan and, usually, a supporter of the President, it is hard not to think the award is a tad premature.
The award demonstrates that the sense of hope President Obama has inspired is not limited to Americans and the concerns of our nation but have transcended international boundaries. This is not merely another way of saying he is not George W. Bush. Conservatives complained mightily when candidate Obama went to the Victory Column in Berlin and gave a speech to the world, but the world noticed and they greatly appreciated the gesture.
The award also gives Americans, currently embroiled in partisan strife over health care reform, a chance to step back and realize what a great accomplishment Obama’s presidency is, for the whole country of course, but for this man himself especially. Passions rise whenever the subject of race has come up, during the campaign or in the early months of his presidency, sometimes to the boiling point. For all of us, this can be stressful but the man who is the focus and the lens for that debate, it must be excruciating. Running for President is not a stress-free endeavor. Being President is not a stress-free endeavor. To be the first African-American to run for and serve as President demonstrates a man of extraordinary gifts, achieving something not only for himself but for the entire world. Indeed, the encomiums directed at the President by the participants in the Synod for Africa illustrate, like the award, that Obama and what his presidency represents, has ignited a sense of hope around the world. That is no small achievement.
America’s legacy of racial strife is one of the principal threads that runs through our history. But, that thread runs through other countries as well today. The influx of immigrants into the ancient nations of Europe is causing them to assess their cultural identity as well as their racial attitudes. One hundred years ago, one knew what it was to be a Frenchman or a Briton. Today, those countries need a different answer and Obama’s triumph – precisely because it was built with hope and confidence – holds out to them the possibility that they, too, can bridge the divides in their own societies.
So, why so ambivalent? At the very least we can conclude that the Nobel Committee is not, in the parlance of corporate restructuring, very “results oriented,” especially when you realize that nominations for the award had to be submitted by February 1, when he had been in office for a mere fortnight. Hope is a good thing, a theological virtue no less, and a source of our religious identity. (Of all my favorite quotes of St. Augustine, another favored son of Africa, my all-time favorite is “Our yearnings anticipate landfall.”) But, in the political realm, hope only points a direction, and the path remains to be trod. The Nobel Committee is right to applaud President Obama for saying that diplomacy must be the first avenue for the conduct of foreign policy, but it remains to be seen what the diplomacy he conducts will achieve. His outreach to the Muslim world in his speech in Cairo is a thing to be applauded but it is not yet clear if it is a thing that will be reciprocated.
Still, it is a good thing that the Nobel Committee, like the American people, voted their hopes not their fears. The ceremony will provide the President another opportunity to articulate his worldview, a worldview that speaks to that part of the human heart that wants to hope for a better day and a more peaceful world. Convincing the Nobel Committee may be easier than convincing the Afghan warlords, and the latter task is not made any easier because of the award: Afghan warlords don’t care what happens in Oslo. But, there are people in this world, mostly young people, some who live in Arabia, some who live in the suburbs of Paris, Berlin and Houston, who face a world of challenges and are not sure whether to take the path of violence or of peace. It is to them that the President must direct his Nobel speech for, in a very real way, they are the ones who won it for him.