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Obama’s Prize for Peace

The wires are ringing with the news that the Nobel committee in Oslo has awarded the 2009 Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama, mentioning nuclear non-proliferation, climate change action, focus on international diplomacy and cooperation and for “captur[ing] the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”

The pick is quite a surprise, given Obama’s relatively short stint on the international stage, but the Nobel committee emphasized that the pick was made on Obama’s record, not his potential for the future.

The justification for the prize, while certainly unexpected and a bit tenuous, is indeed rooted in fact. Obama has long been a booster for non-proliferation, and his speech and lobbying at the UN General Assembly and Security Council proved to be quite successful.

On climate change, the Obama administration has taken the toughest line against carbon emissions of any White House so far in terms of concrete regulations by Federal agencies. The September announcement by the EPA that the agency would begin to regulate CO2 as a pollutant, verified by the Supreme Court in 2007, was a major step towards US action on the climate change issue. Though cap-and-trade or other large scale programmes are clearly the purvue of Congress, the executive branch’s efforts in the realm are likely to be a major portion of the US effort.

Regarding diplomacy, the committee was likely in part referring to the re-elevation of Susan Rice’s post, the US Ambassador to the UN, to a cabinet level post, as well as his public addresses and promised strategic changes toward diplomatic action over rapid military decisions – such as Iran. The G5 plus one meeting with Iran, where Undersecretary of State Burns officially met with the Iranian negotiator, and found a way forward on nuclear energy processing was the first concrete outcome of this strategy.

In the US realm, this is a great boost for the Obama foreign agenda – which certainly played into the decision by the Nobel folks. While the US political scene is often quite skeptical of the international community, the Peace Prize is a quite lauded affair. Even major Obama detractors will have a bit of hard time criticizing his win, especially after their poorly received revelry of Chicago’s olympic demise. For Obama liberal supporters, it is a bittersweet moment –many have criticized the administration’s foreign policy for moving to the center, particularly on war issues, and the Peace Prize designation takes a great deal of air out of that balloon.

Perhaps the happiest people in the US on this one will be the centrists – and those who wanted Obama to reshape the US image abroad. Whether the award is warranted (too soon? too uncertain?) or relevant (peace prize as we’re discussing escalation in Afghanistan?, for the leader of the largest and most powerful military force in the world to be awarded a prize for peace and diplomacy is quite an interesting development.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at