Sunday, 11 October 2009

Obama, the Nobel Prize and the Power of Symbols

Friday Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy". The general reaction was one of astonishment. Let's admit it, nobody was really expecting it! According to experts, Obama wasn't even in the list of the favorites. Lots of people are still trying to understand what was passing through the heads of the Nobel prize committee when they decided to give the prize to Mr. Obama. Among the previous winners were big names like Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa, Henry Kissinger. They were awarded the prize mainly for their achievements, not for their good promises/premises.

In today's Financial Times one could read that the prize was awarded "just after 263 days after taking office, triggering praise and incredulity across the world over a decision that rewards him more for promise than achievement". That's why everybody was amazed: "more for promise than achievement". Obama himself said the he was "surprised and humbled" by the decision and that he did not feel worth to be counted among the great figures that had previously won the prize.

Now, I am far away from being an expert in such matters, that's why I tried to make myself an idea on why a similar decision was taken, and on what was the message that the Nobel Prize committee was trying to convey. I have read a couple of articles on the web, some blogs and various newspapers trying to understand how people were making sense of the extraordinary event. Overall, the reactions can be divided in two groups: those who are saying "C'mon, wasn'it a bit too early?!" and those who are saying: "That's a good thing! The guy has a vision!". Here are three quotes that summarize the spirit of the interpretations that I found more interesting and more realistic (in explaining why the prize was awarded to Obama):

"Obama has been widely credited with improving America's global image after the eight-year presidency of Bush, who alienated friends and foes with policies that often aroused international ire like the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq." (Reuters)

"Mr Obama, or his administration, has set in motion a process of having a nuke-free world, arresting climate change, diplomatically engaging countries belonging to what his predecessor called "axis of evil," building a true state of Palestine and putting pressure on Israel to end the Palestinian occupation, closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, and making human rights violators of the previous administration accountable for their wrongdoing." (Business World)

"This is an interesting question for those who study signaling theory. [...] First, Obama has strongly signaled his plans for the future to many other world leaders. Second, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has signaled its belief in Obama’s follow-through skills. If he were a stock future, he would have quadrupled in price, split a few times, and quadrupled again, all overnight. If he were a horse, his odds would have been extraordinarily steep." (Freakonomics Blog)

Probably the fact that G. W. Bush was the previous president of the US helped a lot! Anyway, the main aim of the committee was probably to give a strong signal to the world. I think that is the most likely and healthy interpretation. Obama is a symbol of change, novelty, hope, dialogue and peace. These are the values the committee wanted to reward. Anyway, apart from that, this decision is going to further increase the already unrealistic expectations in Obama's presidency. He has good ideas and prospects, but there's probably a limit to his abilities. And it will take more than a few weeks to understand whether he really deserved the prestigious prize.

PS: You can obviously argue that he did not deserve it, that it is too early, that many others deserved it more, etc...