Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Obama Won the Nobel, Part II

crossposted at

When Obama's Nobel Prize was first announced, I tried to explain why the Nobel Committee might have chosen him. Today, as he accepts the Prize, seems like a good time to finish that attempted explanation. But first, two quick things I need to say to frame the discussion.

First, I myself would not have given Obama the Prize, and certainly not yet. Given the decision, I would not have chosen him (although I don't have any particular other candidate in mind). My goal is to understand the Committee's decision and try to grasp its underlying logic, not to endorse it. (Indeed, the Committee themselves might be having second thoughts today, after Obama endorsed the Augustinian principle of “just war” during his acceptance speech.) If you prefer to believe that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had no reasons, and are simply irrational people from Pluto, then this post is not so much for you.

Second, while many people seem genuinely angry at the decision to give the Prize to Obama, and couch that anger in moral terms, I neither endorse the anger nor the framework of moral reasoning behind it. The idea that the Peace Prize might go to someone who does not deserve it, or that it justly belongs to some other, more worthy candidate, does not upset me. More to the point, I believe a focus on the justice or injustice of the award itself is misplaced. If one thinks of the Prize as something primarily meant to recognize deserving moral figures for their labors and suffering, as an honor accorded to saints, then of course Obama’s prize seems like an outrage. But the question of individual desert is morally trivial compared to the Peace Prize’s goal, which is to help end war and violence. The Peace Prize is a tool toward a political and moral end. It needs to be bestowed in the way that has the best chance of ending or preventing bloodshed. I find that goal morally compelling in a way that a quest to honor the “most deserving” individual could never be.

If you feel committed to the idea that the Peace Prize should be about rewarding the saintly, because political sainthood needs to have an earthly reward, I would suggest that the Prize is a sorry substitute for the genuine rewards such people seek. The proper reward for the just is to do justice. The proper reward for the saint is good works. I do not see it as a terrible shame, for example, that Mahatma Gandhi never won the Prize. The goals of non-violent revolution and Indian independence were his prize, and he would not have traded them for money, or public honor, or a trip to Oslo. He would see those things as spiritual stumbling blocks, or as tools to be turned toward other goals.

The point of the Nobel Peace Prize is to end war: to lend its credibility and prestige and disburse its cash award to people who will use those things toward the ends of peace. The moral question is how to allocate the Prize most effectively. That question is both utilitarian, because it aims to achieve the maximum good for the maximum number, and necessarily speculative, because no one to whom it can be given can be assured of success. If the prize is given only for completed accomplishments, for battles already ended, much of its value is lost. It is more useful when given where it might turn a tide, or help someone achieve something that might not otherwise be achieved. That requires the Prize Committee to make their best guess about where the Prize will do the most good.

When giving the Prize to American Presidents, the Nobel Committee has traditionally erred by giving it too late in their political careers, rather than too early. Roosevelt and Wilson got the Prize near the ends of their second terms, when they were effectively lame ducks. Had they “earned” the Prize by that point? Sure. But they were also about to relinquish their political power and their role on the world stage. Those awards, as I argue in my earlier post, helped build the prestige of the Nobel Prize itself, but otherwise they achieved nothing. Giving Jimmy Carter the Nobel as a retired President makes a lot of sense as a recognition of secular sainthood, but it’s increased his effectiveness at doing good works only marginally, if at all. Giving it to him during his first term might (no one can say “would”) have led to more good being achieved. I too think Obama is getting the Prize too early, but too early is not nearly as big a problem as too late.

Obama’s Prize reflects a calculation on the Prize Committee’s part that Obama has a window for achieving peace on several fronts, and that it was important to back him during that window. In fact, they may see that window as very narrow, and quick to close. They wanted to make sure to back him while it mattered, because they’re afraid that if they waited another year the opportunity might be lost. And the Prize also reflects their calculation that Obama is, during that window, the most important potential vehicle for promoting peace, so much that even giving him marginal assistance is likely to be more effective than backing any other potential winner. Various obscure nominees might have had their effectiveness increased tenfold by winning the Prize, but the Committee seems to think that making Obama even a little bit more effective at this moment will do more practical good than making some other nominees exponentially more effective. If all they do is strengthen Obama’s hand a little bit, the apparent reasoning goes, and allow him to achieve a little bit more than he would otherwise, that could make a huge difference. They know he hasn’t achieved much yet. And they’re not at all confident that he will. That’s why they gave him the Prize: because they’re not sure he’ll make it, and because they think he could use the help.

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