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Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize and its message to the world

Charles R. Stith

Though Barack Obama’s selection as this year’s Noble Peace Prize recipient is unconventional — and some would say controversial — it’s perfectly logical when one considers what Obama represents in historical context.

In recent lectures at the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University, I have discussed what could have well been the rationale of the Nobel Committee in making this pick. Those that would pooh-pa the selection as being simply about politics are half right. While it is about politics, namely his election, it is not that simple.

Against the backdrop of the partisan animus that has come back to haunt political discourse in our country, it is hard to remember the jubilation and awe that followed Obama’s election. It was monumental in terms of what it meant for America. America’s unprecedented experiment with democracy started from what could have been a fatally flawed conclusion when it came to race. African Americans were defined as three-fifths human, with no rights white folks were bound to respect.

With Obama’s election, America took a dramatic step in perfecting its promise. Clearly this election says something rather profound about race in America. The easy assessment is to read the moment to mean that we’ve forever moved beyond the historic constraints of race that have bound America. I certainly wouldn’t go this far.

Obama being tapped for the Peace Prize would suggest that the Nobel Committee gets something that seems to elude the pundits and prognosticators of the “big chill” generation. That is, race (and by implication tribe, clan, or country of origin) does not have to be the only, or certainly not the defining, thing that colors the decisions we make. That is refreshing; if not cause for hope.

Equally important is the impact Obama’s election had in the world. I remember that day well. I voted that morning and then left to Logan Airport for a flight to Germany. I didn’t know the results until I landed in Berlin the next day. I arrived in Berlin wearing an Obama campaign button, with a bag of Obama/Biden buttons in hand.

By the time we landed, Obama’s election had been secured. After we deplaned, and before I could get through immigration, dozens of people came up to congratulate me for what this meant for America and the world. In the days that followed, as I moved around Berlin and passed out Obama buttons to waiters at Bistros or politicians at the Bundesstadt, these election mementos were received as symbols of something great.  

This election represented a leap across the chasm of race in a way that was so dramatic that it burnished America’s standing as democracy’s standard bearer. It has elevated the discussion about governance world-wide. I do a lot of work in Africa and that has certainly been the case there.

It is my belief that  Obama’s presence in the White House will accelerate the call for democracy on the African continent; and further validate African leaders (and initiatives) leading the charge. When Obama suggested as much in his speech in Ghana, he was applauded more than twenty times.

This, despite the fact that he pulled no punches: “It’s easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others,” he said, “Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict. The West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many.”

There are a number of reasons for the response he received in raising the accountability issue. He was saying the right thing at the right time, and given what his election represented, he had the standing and stature to say it.

When the Nobel Committee selected Obama to receive its Peace Prize, it was a statement about the character of democracy itself. Obama’s election says something about the human capacity to “judge someone’s fitness for governance based on the content of their character.” But, more than that it says something about democracy’s potential to yield profoundly edifying and apocryphal moments.

His election, like Nelson Mandela’s, was a reminder that as humans we have the capacity to transcend what were perceived as intractable limitations. Whether you agree that Obama is the embodiment of the hope we seek, or a symbol of an age that is the long sought bridge to a better place; relish in what this prize means in terms of the human capacity to move beyond the constraints of a checkered past.

Ambassador Charles R. Stith served as U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania during the Clinton Administration and is Director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC) at Boston University, where Stith holds a faculty appointment in the department of international relations.