How Barack Obama earned the Nobel Peace Prize

1. Committing the country for the first time to a “no nukes” goal.
2. Preventing an arms race with Russia by killing the “missile shield.”
3. Ending the crusade against Islam.
4. Abolishing the torture regime.

Alfred Nobel left part of the fortune he made from the invention of dynamite to establish a prize for  “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Nobel hadn’t heard of nuclear weapons, let alone nuclear non-proliferation.  But no doubt he would have recognized the drive to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms and to reduce the size of nuclear stockpiles as the contemporary equivalent of the arms-control movement of his own time.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty commits its nuclear-power signatories to work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.  Under Cold War conditions, that goal seemed merely aspirational, with no immediate practical implication.

But after the Cold War, with U.S. conventional forces overwhelmingly superior to those of any potential rival, it became very much in the security interest of the United States to reduce or abolish nuclear weaponry, and Bill Perry, Sam Nunn, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz proposed exactly that.

Last month at the U.N. Barack Obama committed the United States to that program, which (among other good effects) strengthened our hand against Iranian and North Korean proliferation efforts; it was hard to denounce their violations of the NPT with a straight face when we weren’t even pretending to try to live up to ours.

So when the usually intelligent Megan McArdle announces loftily that

it’s kind of ludicrous that anyone is even trying to argue that Barack Obama truly deserves this Nobel Peace Prize

she is, to put it bluntly, talking through her hat.

That’s not to mention the importance of killing the “missile shield” that threatened a new arms race with Russia, or the work for “fraternity between nations” done by making it clear that the United States of America was no longer fighting a “crusade” against al-Islam, or putting an end to the torture regime.

Yes, it’s really rather surprising that the President has actually done, in nine short months, enough to justify a Nobel Peace Prize.   But “surprising” does not equal “false.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

27 thoughts on “How Barack Obama earned the Nobel Peace Prize”

  1. I usually find your analysis well thought out and interesting, but you really lost me here–

    "the usually intelligent Megan McArdle."

  2. If Obama earned the Nobel Peace Prize, why didn't you say so in the run up to the voting?

    Nobody has given up their nuclear missiles yet, or even given up their aspirations of nuclear weapons. If promising to give up our nuclear weapons strengthens our hand vis-a-vis Iran and North Korea, why don't we unilaterally disarm?

    As far as starting a new arms race with Russia, my understanding was that many liberals claim that we can have a more effective deterrent to Russian or Iranian missles by using a sea-based system, rather than a land based system. See Robert Farley,… sea-based ballistic missile defences have proven to be more mobile and more capable than the system that was proposed for Poland…") Isn't the deployment of this sea-based system also going to lead to an arms race? After all, its even more effective. Isn't this more effective system going to lead to an even more intense arms race than the ineffective land based system would have?

  3. According to the Nobel website (, nominations are due February 1, and a short list is created by the end of March. Although it's true that the Laureate isn't officially chosen until October, one can assume that only a handful of people have been in the running for several months. That is, even if it's true, as you suggest, that the Committee ultimately decided to award the prize to Obama based on his non-proliferation work, he had been shortlisted since the end of March. What he he done up to that point to deserve to be there?

  4. Can the Feb 1 malarkey. Any elected national legislator, any professor in certain fields, and some others are able to nominate – easily 10,000 people. Every global name you've heard of was nominated.

  5. And even the March short list deadline, while more interesting, proves little: it just means some people on the committee were intrigued and wanted to keep this option open.

  6. FWIW, for all that I'm a huge Obama fan I think that this prize was absurdly premature were it a reward for goals met; but it's not. It's a goad to future action. Quite presumptious of the Norwegians.

  7. About the "intelligent Ms. McArdle": read Thomas Levenson or Ezra Klein on the subject and see if your adjective persists.

    PS: sorry so many comments; 200 character text box limit w/my cheap phone.

  8. Mark, this is really quite embarrassing. (Though I think more highly of Ms. McArdle than some of your other commenters.)

  9. I wouldn't call it presumptuous as much as I'd call it daring. The committee is daring the President to live up to his promises. I don't see why that's a bad thing. The nay sayers on this issue are largely misunderstanding the committee's reasoning. What I would hate to see now is shyness, uncertainty, and embarrassment on the part of Liberals and Dems resulting from this. We need to embrace this moment and use it to gather momentum. The President's Conservative and Libertarian critics alike should not dissuade us from doing so. If we weren't pissing them off, we wouldn't be doing our jobs.

  10. Has any president NOT said that they wanted a world free from nuclear weapons? And has any president actually followed up on any of that? I still don't see why you think Obama is any different here than all of his predecessors.

  11. The President has said that "…I do not view it as recognition of my own accomplishments…".… So, why don't you rescind this post? Megan McArdle is an embarrassment.

    By the way, the Taliban, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Southern Baptist Convention are all vociferously denounce alcohol, as do you. Why don't you renounce this position? And why do you hate Lech Walesa?

  12. Doesn't the committee make its decision by late August? So the non-prolif treaty, the missile; these weren't considered. What else do you have?

  13. This just seems to be a very interesting topic. I'm just watching to see if the people are looking to see what qualified him for this prize or keep looking at what's been done so far in office.

  14. Actually, this award was given to the president because he followed up George W. Bush. It is apparent with the last six awards that the Nobel Prize committee has become the official international body to punish George W. Bush for having been president of the United States. Having lived in Europe, I understand that most people don't really understand the US government. They think that it's a parliamentary system and that the current president has unseated George W. Bush. But that's not what he did because George W. Bush was not on the ballot.

    But that is what the award is for: you are not George W. Bush. Further evidence is that they gave the award to Jimmy Carter just after he dissed George W. Bush on the issues of Afghanistan and Iraq. They gave one to good old Al Gore because he lost. And they gave one to Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, for also dissing George W. Bush.

    The hatred of George W. Bush by certain people is absolutely beyond me. It started before anyone knew who George W. Bush really was except for being the son of George HW Bush, whom many people also hated and despised. Remember how awful the zeitgeist was during the early 90s? Remember grunge rock out of Seattle? Remember the absolute misery of REM songs?

    All of that was about life under GHW Bush. Once these same people found out that GW Bush was going to be president, they went into the same miserable, contemptible, slashing mode, where nothing absolutely nothing but what they wanted, which was for George W. Bush to somehow expire, remember all those movies and books about how to kill Bush or what it might be like if somebody kill Bush?

    Those who give out the Nobel Peace Prize have done the Nobel peace prize and those actual real people who deserved it and got the award in the past a real disservice.

    This prize is supposed to be about peace and not politics. It's supposed toward people like Mother Teresa and not people like Al Gore or Barak Obama.

    And it's certainly not supposed to be used for the express purpose of punishing one man.

  15. I just think it was a premature decision and that it is setting up Obama for failure. I mean I'm a whole hearted democrat I just wish that he would have done more before beig awarded the Nobel peace prize. I can see Obama doing some truly fantastic things in the future, and I think that would be the perfect time for him to be awarded it. After actually Doing something.

  16. It is History dressing its Elegant Dress;

    By Ahmed EL-Mutasim Mohammed Ahmed

    It is History dressing its Elegant Dress; Congratulation Mr. The President Barack Obama for great Honor, Y deserve it. As being said on the media in several Article Nobel Prize's Observer were shocked by the sudden decision of the Nobel Prize Committee to award the 44th President of the USA Mr. Barack Obama Nobel Peace Prize allowing him to becomes the third President of USA to get such great and prestigious Prize.(President Theodore Roosevelt won in 1906 and President Woodrow Wilson was awarded the prize in 1919)

    History will be proud to contain Obama's Name in its Records even the whole world is happy for this great man of his kind.

    Although Nobel Prized Observers were shocked I was not and I had written an article on my blog and even tweeted in twitter that Mr. the President will soon be nominated and selected for Nobel Peace Prize, published on August 30, 2009 at my blog (BlueDean)

    My approach to the concept of the award is the same as the approach of the Nobel Prize Committee, in addition to other factors why should Mr. the President Barack Obama be selected for such great prestigious Prize?

    Mainly The stunning & amazing decision designed to encourage Barack Obama initiatives to reduce nuclear arms; ease tensions with the Muslim world & stress emphasize diplomacy and cooperation rather than unilateralism.

    That were enough for the whole world to accept the selection but there others issues as I told Y above that will push with this great man to get such great Nomination & Award:

    This man will be having the destiny to change and shape the new world & the new vision for peace and international relation between nations around the Globe. His diplomacy above questions and dearest to all Humankind;

    Other factors why should Mr. the President Barack Obama be selected for such great prestigious Prize?

    1-He addresses our humanity before and after

    2-He respects us for who we are before and after

    3-He loves the peace because he believes in the fact that a peace-full mind is only productive mind that will add to growth and prosperity

    4-He believe in innovation and technology

    5-He embrace brotherhood before grown enemies

    6-He prefers to shake hand than to close doors

    7-He has a beautiful piece of mind and powerful source of love and creative talents capable of spreading peace & love everywhere he intended to go

    8-He embraces the most important issue that we really need "change" with magnitude that suit our necessity and legitimate requirements

    9-He inspire you using your own wisdom, Ù‹ while you grow & with your thought along your own horizon

    10-He has ability to make you happy and satisfied, even before his plan start. He has being given the blessing and a healing word and nature.

    11-He is the American Legend, Sure he will get USA-2012 election for another 4 year, meet me there if I am still alive otherwise pray for my soul.

    12-Change that reflecting in huge campaigns to reform the USA Health Insurance System & USA Financial system and initiative to promote climate change Project. All this reforms need a very bold character that believes in the benefit of Reforms and its long term impact and he is ready to sacrifice with his political career.

    13-Many others issue that will soon come to surface that will remind you of I am telling now about this great man.

    Barack Obama before he is a president to the United State of America; he is the hope for many people in the world. He promised African & many people in the Developing Countries to make the peace & Development their favorite dress through partnership and safe & easy Finance & grants from the IFIs & Multi-Donors Financial institutions.

    He is working on that. He does not forget his promises while election, rather it become a very solid agenda. The 20 billion pledges for developing Countries at Italy Summit is a witness for such obligation. He is very respectable man that respects his word & accepts people for who they are & what their ethnic Group is. He is Humble, simple & Professional. God Bless you Barack Obama.

    White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama woke up to the news a little before 6 a.m. EDT. The White House had no immediate comment on the announcement, which took the administration by surprise.

    The Nobel Committee decided not to inform Obama before the announcement because it didn't want to wake him up, committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said.

    "Waking up a president in the middle of the night, this isn't really something you do," Jagland said.

    The Nobel Committee continued the change in global mood wrought by Obama's calls for peace and cooperation but recognized initiatives that have yet to bear fruit: reducing the world stock of nuclear arms, easing American conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthening the U.S. role in combating climate change.

    "it is extremely very scarce a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," Jagland said.

    Obama's election and foreign policy moves caused a dramatic improvement in the image of the U.S. around the world. A 25-nation poll of 27,000 people released in July by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found double-digit boosts to the percentage of people viewing the U.S. favorably in countries around the world.

    The same indicator had extremely plunged across the world during President George W. Bush era

    A 1983 Nobel Peace laureate, Former Polish President Lech Walesa said "So soon? How come? Too early! He has no contribution so far. He is still at an early stage. He is only beginning to act. This is probably an encouragement for him to act. Let's see if he perseveres. Let's give him time to act.

    Well thank Y Mr. Walesa to point out the difference and the reason why he was picked. His krizma were there before him……. Ahmed Mutasim

    Oh My God it is very hard and strong slap on bush's face; The award appeared to be a slap at Bush from a committee that harshly criticized Obama's predecessor for his largely unilateral military action in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The Nobel committee praised Obama's creation of "a new climate in international politics" and said he had returned multilateral diplomacy and institutions like the U.N. to the center of the world stage.

    "You have to remember that the world has been in a pretty dangerous phase," Jagland said. "And anybody who can contribute to getting the world out of this situation deserves a Nobel Peace Prize."

    Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which are awarded by Swedish institutions, the peace prize is given out by a five-member committee elected by the Norwegian Parliament. Like the Parliament, the committee has a leftist slant, with three members elected by left-of-center parties. Jagland said the decision to honor Obama was unanimous.

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who won the prize in 1984, said Obama's award shows great things are expected from him in coming years. "It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama's message of hope," Tutu said.

    Thinks What Mr. the President? Your roles has just being doubled, every single person in this universe is waiting for you to light & penlight his path, Africa & South America, Developing Countries & Me with special focus to resolve and comprehend the peace resolution and directed to ease. To assist to lift the embargo on those countries that lives under very tough conditions in Africa. To put Humanity on the top priority and compromise. You are Guru in that part Yr Excellency. Pls make it for us peace in its best White dressing, White, crystal & unforgettable as ever pls Mrs. the President. Let it to be your first Gift to… us as Nobel Peace Laureate.

  17. Eric,

    I don't remember those books or films about killing Bush; I don't think they existed.

    There's a movie about killing Blair, & many books (no movies iirc) calling for prosecuting Bush. That's it.

  18. Huh. Never heard of it. Apparently it's British and made a loss here in the US: <$1 million in tickets, in theaters less than 2 weeks. Hardly the sweeping presence of "all those movies and books".

  19. Last month at the U.N. Barack Obama committed the United States to that program, which (among other good effects) strengthened our hand against Iranian and North Korean proliferation efforts; it was hard to denounce their violations of the NPT with a straight face when we weren’t even pretending to try to live up to ours.

    You're not serious, are you? Practically every President within the past 30 years has made at least a fleeting comment about non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament (particularly Reagan), so I don't see why Obama should be getting credit for this when nothing has even really moved on this front. It would be like giving Rabin and Arafat the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 before they even negotiated the 1994 Camp David Accords (much less the real thing, which ended up being a travesty).

  20. Remember how awful the zeitgeist was during the early 90s? Remember grunge rock out of Seattle? Remember the absolute misery of REM songs? All of that was about life under GHW Bush. Once these same people found out that GW Bush was going to be president, they went into the same miserable, contemptible, slashing mode…

    I'm sorry, but this is this stupidest thing I've read since ever. I will now remember the name of Eric Johnson, Music Critic. Maybe Kurt Cobain swallowed his birth certificate because he looked 6 years into the future & saw the lesser Bush slouching onto the stage? I await a Republican-Zhdanovist interpretation of the complete works of Mudhoney.

  21. "Here’s a BBC piece defending a Bush assasination movie"

    "Huh. Never heard of it. "

    You darn sure would have heard about it if it were about Obama. Remember all the right-wing fanatics and their violence? A movie? About assassinating the president?

    And there was more. You could buy tee-shirts showing Bush being assassinated, and coffee mugs. There were whole books full of examples that you never read (Unhinged).

    People hear about what they want to hear about.

    On the main subject of the post – it is amazing to me how anyone can defend this nonsense. Mr. Kleiman seems to have a certain opinion on what is the best strategy to accomplish nuclear non-proliferation. I disagree with his strategy. I think that President Obama is right on track to help proliferate nuclear bombs to the worst countries in the world. Maybe we should wait and see who's right before we start giving awards?

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