03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Eyes on the Prize -- A New Nobel for a New World

Last week, somewhat unexpectedly, our president won the Nobel Peace Prize. More predictable was the instantaneous backlash against it.

Sadly, I'm not just talking about the hue and cry from the usual right-leaning outlets. Even factoring out the Rush Limbaughs of the world, the Nobel has instantly cut a divisive swath across the political landscape. According to a Los Angeles Times editorial, "It's difficult to see why [Obama] deserves the peace prize so soon after taking office." Ruth Marcus, a Washington Post columnist, writes that even though she voted for President Obama, she still feels "this is ridiculous, embarrassing even." She goes on to claim the prize "is supposed to be for doing, not being."

And there is the inflection point; a crucial misunderstanding of the liquid nature of power that is at the heart of all this nonsense. All the criticism is based on an outdated concept of the practical use of this kind of honor carries with it. The Nobel Peace Prize is for doing? Yes, Ms. Marcus, but not exclusively. It also recognizes unique powerful leadership, and it values potential.

Over the years the Nobel Prize has turned into a tool working on the concept of peace, and more specifically working on the consciences of those on whom the honor is bestowed.

Let's make this short and sweet -- the function of any award or honor de facto changes as the world infuses it with powers it does not inherently possess. The Oscar used to go to the "best" picture of the previous year, a film that by early Hollywood's technologically limited distribution options had already made all the money it would ever make. It was a way of saying, "Job well done," and for a long time it was a gaudy trophy and a source of pride for its owner and not much more. Now though, as we all know, winning an Oscar means a huge jump in grosses for a film and enormous profits for its studio. Filmmakers did not create this dynamic, but they'd be foolish not to exploit it with timed releases, re-releases and special packaging on their DVDs.

This is perfect analogy for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was designed for one task, but thankfully has been synthesized by its recipients and pressed into an entirely more useful service. Given that it's an honor brought to us by -- and named for -- the man who christened his world-changing invention "dynamite," the fact that his prize could change its state of being and power over time might've come as no surprise at all. Yes, perhaps giving this award to men and women in their 80s who've worked tirelessly their whole lives to effect change seems right from a stately committee perspective, but a far more practical deployment of the honor involves something more like we're seeing now. By pushing someone in the position of tremendous power who seems to have a sense of morality and genuine interest in peace, the Nobel Committee is essentially supercharging Barack Obama's expectations of himself. He says he's not worthy, and he believes it. Some who voted for him may not believe it, but he does. And the key is, a leader like Obama wants to be worthy.

The detractors don't seem to understand the awarding Committee has offered not a false Medal of Distinguished Service to a green recruit, but handed a powerful weapon to a talented cadet who's eager to take to the battlefield.

Did the Nobel committee give Barack Obama this award to retroactively congratulate him on his years of leadership in the service of peace? Of course not. Any group interested in peace that's spending their time looking in the rearview mirror when so much of the heavy lifting remains to be done would be foolish, and that's one thing I'm fairly certain you can't say about the Committee. Outwardly, the Nobel Peace Prize is an international pat on the back for leadership, but we all know it has the added freight of an open secret. It has subtext. It's really a demand note on the recipient's psyche -- insisting they give this peace thing all they've got.

In that sense, it acts much like the mechanical rabbit racing around the dog track. The dog would run the track anyway, but look how much overdrive he puts in. You tell a man like Barack Obama, who really looks at himself, that he's done a good job with peace efforts, and he'll spend the rest of his time in office trying to earn that. This thing could actually make the difference in how things fall with Iran.

I've seen the process work up close. I was among a tight-knit group of advisors working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his Vietnam War policy forty-five years ago, when three years earlier he became the youngest man ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. And I saw a change in him. Now this is a man who had fought extraordinary fights for the deliverance of others. This is a man who had yearned and struggled for peace. But still, I know for a fact that the weight of the Peace Prize was a major factor in his decision to "break his silence" on April 4th, 1967 and speak directly and specifically to the injustices of the conflict. Just knowing that hunk of metal was in his bureau drawer forced someone as strong as Martin King to publicly comment in a way he might otherwise not.

Imagine what Barack Obama can do under the long shadow cast by the award.

I'm the first to admit the Committee doesn't always get it right. One of the previous award-winners, Woodrow Wilson (also a sitting US president), was a stone cold racist. Even assuming he ended war in our time, I still look at his Nobel skeptically -- how does one truly care about peace while simultaneously viewing some men as inherently beneath others?

But no one's knocking Obama for his convictions or aspirations. No one believes he stands for things diametrically opposed to the core values of the Nobel Peace Prize. I might have some respect for an argument that points out the clear moral contradiction of presenting a peace prize to a man that seems to be on the very cusp of undertaking a military campaign to escalate a war in Afghanistan. But that's not the argument I'm hearing. No, the main criticism of this president winning is -- that he's just starting his presidency, he's just too green. This rings false, because its supposition is that he's taken the award from someone more deserving. The truth is there doesn't seem to be any genuine peace on this planet that it's necessary to thank someone else for achieving. Any list of hypothetically more deserving candidates any detractor might choose to cite would have one thing in common -- they'd all rather have the prize given to someone who has a chance of making progress with it than take it for personal glory. It's just not the kind of award that attracts the selfish.

All of America should be proud at the selection of our president for the Nobel Peace Prize. The award is a challenge to us to end the partisan politicking and come together as one nation, so we can move into the world of other nations and act as one brotherhood. As the New York Times editorial so aptly phrased it Sunday: "Americans elected Mr. Obama because they wanted him to restore American values and leadership -- and because they believed he could. The Nobel Prize, and the broad endorsement that followed, shows how many people around the world want the same thing."