10/09/2009 05:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

Citing his attempts to create a "new climate in international politics, his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," and his vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded U.S. President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize.

Howls of criticism rang out even before the announcement had a chance to sink in. With wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Middle East peace more elusive than ever, an ailing economy and record unemployment at home, what could the Nobel Committee be thinking? Awarding the Prize to the U.S. President is in the critics' view--at best--- premature, at worst purely political. After all, the Peace Prize is supposed to go to someone who has achieved concrete results.

The President himself is under no illusions about the realities of the world or his own accomplishments over the past 10 months. In accepting the award he said, "I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize...but I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.''

Those words would have warmed the heart of Bertha Sophie von Suttner, the woman responsible for the creation of a Nobel Peace Prize and the first woman to receive one in 1905. In her acceptance speech, she quoted President Roosevelt's words to her in 1904, "World peace is coming, it certainly is coming, but only step by step." She reminded Roosevelt that it was the duty of his government and of all governments "to bring nearer the time when the sword shall not be the arbiter among nations".

The words she used then to describe the United States still ring true, and more so since Obama's election last year. "This land of limitless opportunities is marked by its ability to carry out new and daring plans of enormous imagination and scope, while often using the simplest methods. In other words, it is a nation idealistic in its concepts and practical in its execution of them. However, she was clear eyed in her optimism, going on to remind her audience that, "we are dealing with a goal - world peace - as yet not perceived by many millions or, if perceived, regarded as a utopian dream. Also, powerful vested interests are involved, interests trying to maintain the old order and to prevent the goal's being reached. The adherents of the old order have a powerful ally in the natural law of inertia inherent in humanity which is, as it were, a natural defense against change."

Obama has brought change to the United States and to the world. He may not have ended any wars, but he has moved boldly to change the global dialogue, he has revitalized diplomacy which in the previous administration was subservient to the Pentagon, and has extended an open hand rather than a fist to nations around the world, encouraging their leaders to come to the table. He has not always done this in ways that have met the expectations on the left or the cynicism of the right, yet, his general direction is one that resonates with common people around the world. As Sakena Yacoobi, an educator and human rights activist in Afghanistan said to me this morning, "our people are hungry for peace and leadership that can lead to sustainable, civil societies."

Over the past few years, the Nobel Committee has encouraged those of us who believe peace is more than the mere absence of war - by choosing to honour social justice activists like Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai and Mohammed Yunus. The Committee continues to surprise us - this non-traditional choice suggests that it recognizes that the old paradigms for defining peace are no longer sufficient. Building peace is a process; it has to start somewhere and often needs a leader to jumpstart the process.

Polish Labor leader Lech Walesa, who won the prize in 1983, put it well, saying, "I see two reasons for the prize, it's awarded for the things one has done and also to encourage someone to do things. The latter is at play here. We'll see if he delivers and does what he proposes. Let's give him a chance to deliver."

So while we can take this day to celebrate the honor awarded President Obama, as civil society and social justice organizations, we must continue to hold the President accountable so that he can, in fact, deliver on the promise of peace.