Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Twisting history in defense of Obama

The Nobel Peace Prize and limitations of aspiration

In the wake of President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, some scholars are still insisting that he deserves the award. I disagree, and said so in this space back on Oct. 9. And I see no reason to recalibrate my thinking, not after reading the defense of Obama's award offered this week in a scholarly publication, Foreign Policy.

According to Johan Bergenas, a research associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, "the Nobel Peace Prize has always been aspirational - commemorating what an individual stands for and might achieve, not always what has already been accomplished." As evidence, he argued that two previous presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, won their awards essentially because of what they stood for, not for what they actually accomplished.

But in his bid to put TR and Wilson on the same plane as Obama, he had to adjust the facts of history and downplay what the two earlier winners had achieved. Berganas concedes that Wilson did, after all, lead the fight to create the League of Nations in 1919, but he shrugs it off by saying that "Wilson's vision quickly turned illusory; the league was powerless to prevent Europe from falling into the abyss of World War II." What happened to the League, however, is separate and distinct from the fact that Wilson was instrumental in creating the first international organization of its kind. That alone was a signature achievement; by contrast Obama, hasn't even been able to revive peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Roosevelt passages are even more flawed. While noting that TR won the peace prize in 1906 for his role in the negotiations of a peace treaty between the warring nations of Russia and Japan, Berganas attempts to downplay the president's contributions: "But how much credit does Roosevelt really deserve? Both parties were already looking to cease hostilities."

Good grief. Get this guy a copy of Theodore Rex, the second volume of the TR biography trilogy written by Edmund Morris, the author who won a Pulitzer for volume one. The peace feelers and negotiations dragged on for months in 1905, with Roosevelt knocking heads every step of the way.

Contrary to Berganas' claim that Russia and Japan "were already looking to cease hostilities," Morris unearths cables and documents which prove that both countries were resistent to peace, that, in his words, "each felt that they had lost face in agreeing to talk peace." So both nations concocted disagreement on everything, including where and when to talk at all. Roosevelt not only insisted in a message to both sides that "it is vital that the meeting should take place, if there is any purpose to get peace," he ultimately went ahead and chose a neutral ground, a retreat in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Flash forward several months. After much cajoling from Roosevelt, coupled with his various threats to intervene directly and march the Russians "violently down a steep place into the sea," both nations came around and inked the peace pact. The writer Henry Adams subsequently hailed Roosevelt as "the best herder of emperors since Napolean," while the former belligerents thanked him for "the great part you have played" in winning the peace.

Has Obama achieved anything close to that? Rest my case.

Nor did the Foreign Policy scholar mention the Nobel Rules, which stipulate that the prize must go to the person "who shall have done the most or the best work" (which certainly implies concrete achievement), and shall have worked for "the abolition or reduction of standing armies" (which now seems perversely ironic, given the troop escalation in Afghanistan).

It would appear that the Obama team well understands that this award today was a tad ill-deserved, given the decision to blow out of Oslo so quickly. Unlike the verdict of the Nobel jury, that at least was the correct call.