Arizona State University, never the most scholarly of American institutions, caused a modest commotion this spring after announcing plans to deny its graduation speaker the typical recognition of an honorary degree. The speaker, an accomplished author and deft politician who had just been elected the country’s first black president, had yet to impress the winners of Playboy’s 2002 number-one “party school” honour. “His body of work is yet to come,” a university spokeswoman said of Barack Obama.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee lacks such patience for the long arc of individual achievement. Yesterday, the five-member panel announced that Obama had won this year’s Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. The news arrived in Washington just before dawn, and was met with a groggy befuddlement. It had the feeling of an off-season April Fool’s prank, the inevitable comic extension of the mocking “biggest celebrity in the world” ad that John McCain aired after Obama’s triumphant campaign spin through Berlin, Paris, and London.
After all, Obama is less than nine months into his presidency and has done little to substantively advance the promises that he made to 200,000 Berliners. There he marked his commitment to quitting George W Bush’s stubborn unilateralism. Since entering the White House, Obama’s further efforts in that area are decidedly ordinary: a series of high-profile speeches expounding upon elements of his Berlin agenda.
While a drastic improvement over Bush’s approach, Obama’s does not seem to have yielded impressive results; Iran is more brazen and dangerous than when Obama first promised to extent a diplomatic hand. The one exception may be nuclear disarmament; on a visit to Moscow this summer, Obama announced that the United States and Russia would jointly shrink their remaining arsenals. (Months later, it now looks like it may have taken a commitment to scrap Bush’s missile-defence shield plan to help get Russia on board.)
But Obama seems to prefer cautious realpolitik to the utopian idealism that warms the Nobel committee’s heart. He has yet to fully commit to pushing congress to pass new climate regulations, thought to be a necessary prerequisite for serious action at December’s COP15 summit in Copenhagen.
He has dithered in responding to a coup in nearby Honduras. He may soon commit to a drastic escalation of the American war effort in Afghanistan.
A week earlier, news datelined from another Nordic capital suggested to Americans that Obama’s international celebrity had found its limits. Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid finished last in International Olympic Committee’s voting, just hours after Obama touched down for a Copenhagen charm offensive that American officials had said would clinch Chicago’s campaign (see Monocolumn 3 October). A contrary verdict from Oslo said less about the American president than the peculiar temperaments of two of the world’s most venerable international bodies: the sporting chieftains of the IOC may be insular and untrustworthy, but less susceptible to charisma than the Norwegian politicians who hand out the Nobel.
For the rest of his presidency, Obama’s global appeal (and the charm of not being Bush) is sure to swing between Copenhagen and Oslo, between realist limits and idealistic potential. What is it about American presidents and the symbolic power of Scandinavian capitals? Ronald Reagan’s foreign-policy successes are often now traced back to Reykjavik, where in 1986 he learned to dance with Mikhail Gorbachev at an arms-reduction summit that ultimately helped to end the Cold War. (Gorbachev won his Nobel four years later; Reagan never did.)
Indeed, Obama may be the ultimate loser from this premature victory. It is the type of anti-climatic accomplishment that must be familiar for a man who wrote a mesmerising memoir well before he turned 35. If Obama does bring Middle East peace, or rids the world of its last nuke, the only thing left for him to win will be an honorary degree from Arizona State University.