Premature prize?

2009-10-20 00:00

THE Nobel Prize Committee has surprised everybody by awarding the much-coveted peace prize to Barack Obama, the new president of the United States. My first reaction was that it is premature to award it to a man who has been in power for less than a year and has yet to do anything concrete in international affairs.

The committee gave a long statement to justify its surprise decision. It said the prize was given to Obama for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”. It went further to say: “The committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” I found this difficult to understand because Obama’s efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between the people of the world are nowhere near extraordinary. While commendable, his part in this is, in fact, very small and ordinary. What makes it appear extraordinary to some is that he succeeded a roundly hated man — George W. Bush. Even the rusty John McCain would have been a brilliant president after Bush.

The second sentence is even more astounding. It says Obama was awarded the prize for his vision. He foresees a more peaceful world, one without nuclear weapons (except in the U.S. it seems). He envisages a mature handling of the U.S.’s relations with the rest of the world. He has expressed a willingness to start discussions with the U.S.’s archenemies in Pyongyang, Teheran and Damascus, at great risk to his political career­. Even in Africa, he is keen to minimise (not eliminate) the military component of U.S. Africa Command (Africom), an initiative of the Bush administration that planned a number of U.S. military bases in various parts of Africa. But all of this is a vision only expressed in eloquent speeches before and after his election.

We have been so traumatised by the cowboy politics of Bush that common-sense politics, the politics of negotiation and diplomacy, has become an extraordinary feat. The Nobel Committee went to great lengths to show that Obama has great promise in world affairs. It said: “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”

The statement closed with an endorsement of one of the masterstrokes in Obama’s eloquent speeches: “Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.” This declaration, under normal circumstances, would not earn one a coveted Nobel Peace Prize because it simply affirms the common sense of global politics; that global challenges require global co-operation.

I am not saying that Obama is not remarkable. After all, he is a man of dreams. He is an amazing visionary with a sharp intellect and a warm heart. He has galvanised communities in various parts of the world. He is helping immensely to reshape the image of the U.S. the world over. He has charisma, and a lot of it. He has been compared to Nelson Mandela­ and Mahatma Gandhi in that regard. Of course, the great Gandhi did not get the prize so many believed he deserved. Instead, the likes of Henry Kissinger and Shimon Perez received the prize to the chagrin of many in the world, because of their role in the conflict in the Middle East.

The challenge for Obama is that inspirational words raise expectations. He has promised to fix the U.S. economy without increasing spending. He has promised to turn clean and green. He has vowed to eliminate most lethal weapons from the face of the Earth. The problem is that reality bites. The prize may actually raise expectations even higher. Some may even think that what he has promised has been attained, only to realise later that it was just a dream.

Realpolitik may force him to tread a lot more carefully on all major international issues than he has promised. We must be aware of the possibility that he will dismally fail in the Middle East because of the strong pro-Israel lobby, which is even in his own office. He may pull troops out of Iraq sooner than imagined, but this may amount to dereliction of duty to correct the mess the U.S. created in that country. He will most probably fail to get major nuclear powers, including his own and Israel­, to give up their nuclear arsenal­. Afghanistan may remain in chaos well into his second term. Bully tactics may continue under his watch because that’s part of realpolitik on the ground.

He may fail to translate words and dreams into action. But this does not mean he does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize was calculated to urge him along the route he has already started. Obama and the U.S. may feel obliged to play their part in creating a better and more peaceful future. If this is the case, then the premature peace prize will be a masterstroke of foresight and a departure from the traditional tendency to use hindsight to decide a deserving winner. This may be the beginning of an approach whereby the prize will be used to create peacemakers rather than recognise past accomplish­ments.

If this trend continues, I foresee Siphamandla Zondi receiving a Nobel prize for literature in 2010 for “extra ordinary efforts” in vernacular literature, even though I will actually start writing Zulu novels in 2012. Perhaps I may actually­ end up writing them immed­iately after winning the prize. We must be open to the possibility that prizes in advance may spur positive­ action. If they don’t, we must be open to ridicule and shame.

However one looks at it, Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize is unusual, but such is the future. The past may be blinding us from seeing a novel thing in the making here with Obama at the centre of it. Only time will tell.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the director for southern Africa at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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