Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

October 12, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

President Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize immediately triggered strong reactions worldwide, particularly highlighting the major challenges Obama faces in Muslim-majority states and communities, from the Mideast peace process, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet the Prize also presents President Obama a key opportunity to build on his recent efforts to foster dialogue between America and Muslims around the globe.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, explaining their decision to award the president the Prize, praised Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Further, the Committee noted that for the Obama administration, “Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.”

From day one of his presidency, going all the way back to a landmark speech he gave as a candidate in August 2007, the president declared that he would engage Muslims around the world with the concept “Your future is our future.” And he built on that with a more powerful message in Cairo in June 2009 where he evoked the Quran, the Bible and the Talmud, when he said, “The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now, that must be our work on earth.”

But with the US fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Mideast peace process stalled, immediate responses to the Peace Prize announcement from the Mideast and Muslims around the world ranged from hopeful, to muted, to skeptical.

For example, Saad Al-Ajmi, Kuwait’s former minister of information, told the New York Times he hoped Obama “will take some concrete actions with regards to the Middle East crisis by bringing about the awaited two-state solution.” Highlighting the current stalemate in talks between Israelis and Palestinians, Al-Ajmi observed, “creating reality is not achieved by good intentions; it is by good actions.”

Yet from the outset of his presidency, Obama has made the Mideast peace process an urgent foreign policy priority. Moreover, breaking with the past administration, the Obama White House has reached out to Iran and Syria to conduct direct talks, in the interests of reducing heightened tensions between the US and these states and stabilizing the region.

The Nobel Committee endorsed Obama’s appeal during his September address before the UN General Assembly, where the president told delegates, “Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.”

The key to Obama’s statement is the phrase “all of us.” Obama has created a forum for dialogue and cooperation on issues ranging from Afghanistan, to Iran, to Israel/Palestine, despite seemingly overwhelming practical and policy challenges – such as, divided leadership in the Palestinian territories; an Israeli government that does not see eye-to-eye with Obama on the issue of settlements; and of course, two ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the one hand, elements of the Israeli coalition government reacted enthusiastically to Obama being named the Peace Prize winner. Shimon Peres, president of Israel and former co-recipient of the Peace Prize, said “Obama [has] captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” Indeed, he added, “Under [Obama’s] leadership, peace became a real and original agenda.”

But Khaled Al-Batsh, a leader of the radicalized Islamic Jihad in Gaza, told Reuters the day of the announcement, “Why should Obama be given a peace prize while his country owns the largest nuclear arsenal on earth and his soldiers continue to shed innocent blood in Iraq and Afghanistan?”

Such a statement rings hollow, however, in light of Obama’s broad outreach to Arabs and Muslims and the president’s efforts to foster dialogue and cooperation during his initial nine months in office.

In short, cooperation is a two-way street. Leaders from Muslim-majority states who truly seek a way forward can and should engage with the US and other partners for peace in the Mideast, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. For example, for seven years all members of the Arab League have endorsed a peace plan for Israel and Palestine; yet the League has made none of the effort Obama has in terms of reaching out to Israelis in a credible way to explain the benefits of their plan.

As individuals based, respectively, at a think-tank in the Middle East and a school of public policy in the US – institutions that support policy research and encourage open dialogue and debate – we’ve seen the positive impacts of Obama’s message on young people engaged in global policy questions, and who seek to make a difference in the world.

The day of the announcement the president said he viewed the award as “call to action – a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century.”

The Nobel Committee, in awarding the Peace Prize to Obama, has at once underscored both the tremendous importance of the mindset and language of dialogue that he exemplifies, along with a deep desire to see the translation of these words into deeds. And in this respect, President Obama, the Nobel Committee, and people of all faiths around the world have a lot in common.