The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Barack Obama on Friday reaffirms that the world still looks to America for leadership and has high hopes for its young president. As the Nobel committee noted, in less than a year Obama has established a new tone in international politics that emphasizes engagement over isolation and consensus over ultimatums. In the long term, Obama will be judged by his accomplishments rather than his aspirations. But this unexpected recognition reflects the power of a compelling vision and America's singular role in defending peace, human rights and democracy.
Obama was as surprised as the world to be awakened with the news Friday, and he reacted with characteristic grace and humility. After barely nine months in office, he has hardly amassed a long record of achievement on the international stage. While the war in Iraq is winding down, the fighting in Afghanistan is heating up. The Palestinians and Israelis are as far apart as ever on a framework for peace. Iran is still pursuing its nuclear ambitions, and the administration has not yet brought Russia or China around as constructive global partners. America has not broken significant new ground on immigration, energy or global warming.
But in announcing the award, the Nobel committee singled out Obama for his "extraordinary efforts" to strengthen diplomacy. The jab at his predecessor, George W. Bush, was unmistakable. By replacing confrontation with dialogue as the norm of foreign policy, Obama had "captured the world's attention" and made the United States "a more constructive" player in meeting global challenges, the committee said.
Whether awarding Obama the Nobel so early in his presidency is foolishly premature or remarkably prescient will not be clear for years. As he winds down one war and contemplates escalating another, copes with a deep economic recession and fights for health care reform in Congress, the president has limited time to fully focus on his foreign policy agenda. But the peace prize is not a lifetime achievement award. The Nobel committee has used the prize to draw attention and add momentum to other unfinished work. The U.N. peacekeeping forces, Doctors Without Borders and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi are but a few whose Nobel Peace Prize recognized worthy efforts still in progress.
Obama accepted the prize "as a call to action," and that is appropriate. This is a proud moment that demonstrates that presidential elections matter, and Americans should be heartened that the world continues to look to the United States for leadership. But this presidency is still in its infancy, and Obama's vision will have to evolve into accomplishments before his place in history is secure.