Nairobi Star - Ronald Krebs: Nobel Prize may Distract Obama

Barack Obama, president and Nobel laureate. Not bad for a fellow just five years removed from the Illinois Senate. But caveat victor: The president may soon regret having won this honour, and the Nobel committee may regret having awarded it to him.

First, let's dispense with the usual criticisms. Yes, the award was politically motivated.

But the Peace Prize has always sought to further a particular liberal vision in world affairs.

And sure, Obama unquestionably won more for his aspirations than his accomplishments, a fact the president acknowledged Friday, but aspiration has marked more than three-quarters of peace prizes since the end of the Cold War.

Consider the 1994 award to a trio of Middle East would-be peacemakers, or the 1996 prize to two East Timorese activists.

The real problem is that the prize can backfire against the honorees and their causes. In Obama's case, the Nobel may have the opposite effect of what the Oslo crowd hopes for. It may make Obama more inclined to escalate conflict than defuse it, to confront rather than engage.

In the past, the Nobel committee has insisted that the award advances the causes of the winners in subtle but powerful ways: It raises the profile of organisations, individuals and issues and bolsters support for peaceful conflict resolution.

Sounds great, except that the prize has rarely done much to produce sustained global media attention to neglected causes. Nor has it provided much impetus to incipient or ongoing peace processes. Worse still, dissidents and democracy advocates honoured by the Nobel committee have found themselves the targets of nervous and repressive states.

Just ask the Tibetans, who suffered a brutal Chinese crackdown after the Dalai Lama was honoured in 1989. Or Burmese democracy activists who experienced intensified harassment, imprisonment and military assault after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won the prize in 1991.

At best, the Nobel Peace Prize changes little. At worst, it sets off political dynamics that produce exactly the opposite effect of that desired by the Nobel committee.

Obama is hardly a vulnerable liberal activist in an authoritarian regime. But he should be worried about how the Nobel will reverberate at home. To those enthralled with the president, the prize signals America's return to global leadership after the Bush administration. But to the growing number of Americans less pleased with Obama, the award is a warning sign.

After all, if the international community thinks so highly of him, perhaps it is because he shares their ultra-liberal agenda; perhaps it is because he cares more deeply about global causes than vital US interests.

The president has been sensitive to accusations of dovishness, and he has been eager to prove his hawkish credentials. Afghanistan is a case in point. Meanwhile, time after time on other issues, such as the economic stimulus package, health care and Iraq, he has tacked to the centre, much to the frustration of his most avid supporters.

The Nobel Prize won't make life at home any easier. Here, the award is a political liability, implying that Obama is not only a closet socialist but perhaps a peacenik as well.

How might Obama respond? He will seek to counteract that impression, as he must if he is to retain relevance in an American political environment still deeply shaped by the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Rather than release his inner dove, the Nobel Peace Prize may force him to brandish his public hawk. The administration's dithering on Afghanistan may come to an abrupt end.

Or the president may feel compelled to buck the international community on some salient issue just to show that he is more loyal to American national interests than to any cosmopolitan dream.

The Nobel committee probably imagined that the prize would propel Obama to new heights of diplomacy and peacemaking. But as the president takes steps to counter the award's political confines, the 2009 .Nobel Peace Prize may come to undermine the vision of a cooperative, multilateral, nuclear-free world that the committee attributed to him.

I don't imagine the committee, given its political tone-deafness and naivety, will ever regard the 2009 award as a mistake. But Obama may soon come to see the Nobel Peace Prize as a burden he'd have rather not borne.

Ronald Krebs's study "A Perilous Prize? The False Promise of the Nobel Peace Prize" Is forthcoming in Political Science Quarterly. The article was first published in the Washington Post.

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