Paul Rahe: Has Obama earned that prize?

Professor Paul Rahe writes:

Next to no one has responded to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama with anything but disbelief, followed by embarrassed laughter and dismay.
There is, however, at least one exception to the rule — Steven Clemons who directs the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation — and his argument, such as it is, deserves, I think, attention. For, better than anything else that I have read, it echoes and fully articulates the presumption (and that is the appropriate word) underpinning the Obama endeavor as a whole.
Here is what Clemons says:

The Nobel Committee’s decision to make Obama the only sitting U.S. president since Woodrow Wilson to receive the Nobel Peace Prize shows the committee’s clear-headed assessment that Obama’s “unclenched fist” approach to dealing with the world’s most thuggish leaders has had a constructive, systemic impact on the world’s expectations of itself.
Obama has helped citizens all around the world — including in the United States — to want a world beyond the mess we have today in the Middle East and South Asia. They want a world where America is benign and positive, and where other leaders help in supporting the struggles of their people for better lives rather than securing themselves through crude power.
Obama has found a way in this interconnected world of cell phones, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking to reach a majority of the world’s citizens with his message of hope for a better world. He speaks past the dictators to regular people and has, on the whole, raised global political expectations about everything from climate change to nuclear nonproliferation in ways that no one in history has done before. . . .
Obama’s decision to make the ulcerous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations one of the first foreign policy challenges of his administration, rather than the last, defied most seasoned analysts’ expectations. His message to Iran’s citizens, marking the Persian new year holiday of Nowruz, and his powerful and captivating speech in Cairo, Egypt, communicated to Muslims all around the world that their lives and their faith and their expectations for a better world were vital and as valid as any others.
From his perch in the White House, Barack Obama affirmed the humanity of Muslims and told them that America does value Muslim lives.
Obama’s posture and rhetoric have reversed the collapse of hope and trust that the world’s citizens had in America and stopped the degradation of America’s image during the ten-ure of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney. . . .
The night before Obama’s inauguration, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel accepted my congratulations and responded, “It’s going to be tough, and right now we can only change the optics,” meaning that political perceptions and appearances could be changed more quickly than hard realities.
What is brilliant about Obama and why he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize is that he is a global leader who clearly saw the gains that could be made in changing “the optics” of the global order, upgrading the level of respect between the United States and other nations, making a point of listening to other leaders.
Obama saw that before the world could move to a more stable and better global equilibrium, it had to believe it could — and this is what Obama has done in ways that no other leader has in memory.

It is tempting to suppose that Mr. Clemons has a bad case of the vapors. But one should perhaps cut him some slack. He may be hoping for an appointment in the Obama administration, and he may be correct in supposing flattery the ticket.
Mr. Clemons has done a public service, nonetheless, for he has stated the only conceivable rationale for awarding President Obama a Nobel Prize. Moreover, as he unwittingly makes clear, posturing, rhetoric, optics — that is the essence of hope and change.
What happens, we must ask, when it becomes clear to our new Messiah that his presidency is not, as he repeatedly calls it, a “defining moment,” that our allies are profoundly uneasy, and that our enemies abroad are laughing up their sleeves?

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. He is the author, most recently, of the companion studies Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic, and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect.

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