In the hours after the surprise announcement that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the main argument seems to be whether the President -- and by extension America -- deserves the prize. After all, the argument goes, Obama has only been in office a few months, what has he done to deserve this prestigious prize that has been awarded to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and Mother Theresa. And why give a prize, in effect, to America, when we have been responsible for two recent wars and the torture of terror suspects?
Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and a major armaments manufacturer, specified that the Peace Prize be given "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Although the Committee has strayed somewhat from its original mandate to honoring organizations rather than persons, including the Red Cross, the Friends Service Committee and Doctors Without Borders, the prizes to individuals have fallen into two general categories.
The first are those individuals who have struggled, often in obscurity and with few resources, to promote peace through advocacy for a specific issue or community. In the case of Mother Theresa, for the poor. Or for Mandela and Walensa, for the disenfranchised. The other category are world leaders -- from presidents and prime ministers to leaders of international organizations -- who have brought their power and influence to bear in the cause of peace - everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Mohamed ElBaradei.
Beyond these categories, the underlying tone of the Nobel Committee's awards has been activist. While some of the awards are given simply for a person's past accomplishments, most of the prizes were awarded to individuals whose causes the committee wanted to spotlight or even promote. For example, in 1994, when the committee awarded the prize to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, it was not because of their lifetime dedication to the cause of peace. The prize was awarded in the hope that this gesture might help promote the Middle East peace effort. In a sense, then, the Nobel Peace Prize are awarded as much to people who are symbols of peace as to those who have devoted extensive efforts to the cause of peace.
But does President Obama -- and America -- deserve the peace prize? Near the end of his administration during a foreign trip, President Bush was asked by a foreign reporter whether America itself was not the greatest threat to world peace by dint of its unprovoked invasion of Iraq, its torture of terror suspects and its alienation of both its allies and unaligned nations with its bellicose rhetoric. Bush emphatically disagreed and called the question itself "absurd." However, many Americans and even more in the international community believed that this was, in fact, a fair question, and that the United States in the eight years of the Bush administration had embarked on a path that endangered world peace.
Through a combination of revulsion at the excesses of the Bush administration and the near collapse of the global economy, Americans voted in unprecedented numbers for Barack Obama. More than a repudiation of the Bush administration, Obama's election was seen as America turning a corner -- several corners, in fact. The first was the rejection of the Bush foreign and domestic policy, which had left the United States fighting two risky wars and with a crumbling economy. In addition, the election of Obama represented a new era in American politics and society -- the first African-American president. Both of these are powerfully symbolic milestones not only for Americans, but for the entire world.
Ever since Barack Obama stepped out of obscurity onto the platform of the Democratic National Convention in 2004 -- a powerful moment for all of us in the convention hall and around the world -- Americans have stepped forward to support this agent of change. The grassroots organization that turned out to work hard for Obama -- and give money in unprecedented amounts -- is testimony to both the symbolic power of hope and change. It is worth remembering that this movement to change America did not begin when Barack Obama took the presidential oath of office -- it has been underway for decades and has only now reached its culmination with the Obama presidency.
So my answer to the question is, yes, Obama and America do deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. The change that Obama has brought already to America has rippled out across the globe and restored the promise of peace and freedom that America represents. While those on the far left -- and far right -- who say that America doesn't deserve a Nobel Prize, I beg to differ. We can be proud of the hard-fought and hard-won change. My hope is that we can continue to fulfill the promise of America's new direction.
Follow Hoyt Hilsman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HoytHilsman