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Oct. 9 2009 - 11:03 am | 47 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

Obama, Peace Prizes, and Reciprocity

OSLO, NORWAY - DECEMBER 10:  A plaque depictin...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Funny story: I was singing in the shower this morning, and Robert Gibbs called to tell me I’d won a Grammy. It was actually a little embarrassing, though, since all I’ve ever really done when it comes to music is tool around with a four track and some barely competent guitar playing. Still, I may have done more to deserve my Grammy than President Obama has done to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

This, of course, isn’t to slag on the president. Maybe at the end of four or eight years we’ll have a disarmed Iran and North Korea, a final status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs, and free cone day every day at Ben & Jerrys worldwide. For now, though, all we’ve had is some pretty talk.

In fact, it seems pretty clear no one is more surprised by this prize than the president himself.

No one’s really taken the peace prize terribly seriously since it was awarded to noted terrorist murderer scumbag Yasser Arafat in 1994. Still, it’s an interesting move by a certain element of the international community, and it leads to the question: Why’d they do it?

Here’s the official explanation:

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

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. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.

Pretty weak brew. You’d have to think this would have been Bill Clinton’s year, with the Clinton Global Initiative and his North Korean babe run. So, what’s the real agenda?

One answer making the rounds is that this is yet another anti-Bush statement. A thumb in Dubya’s eye. A “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” from the folks who think Bush and Cheney should be on trial at The Hague.

It could be that.

The explanation that makes more sense to me is that it’s something closer to the old salesman’s free-pen trick on a grand scale. A free pen from, say, a pharmaceutical rep to a doctor seems harmless enough. But it triggers a strong reaction in people: reciprocity. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Social science experiments have consistently shown that giving people thing — even tiny little trinkets — can make them reciprocate in substantial ways. There’s a reason this free-pen trick exists, and that’s because it works.

President Obama has just received the biggest free pen in the world. I’m not sure what happens to the substantial cash attached to the award, but the prestige is a big free pen in itself. And the intent seems clear enough to me. We, the international community, have bestowed our highest honor upon you. Now, you feel at least a little more inclined to lean in our direction on: global warming, Israel-Palestine, etc.

Will it work? This is too aberrant a situation to pretend that social science gives us any answers. Perhaps it was a mistake on the part of the Nobel committee: Now what high honor does President Obama have to chase? It certainly doesn’t strengthen the president’s hand domestically. In fact, it’s a bit embarrassing here at home.

Still, if you had to guess what the Nobel committee was up to, I’d say reciprocity is as good a guess as any.


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  1. collapse expand

    Agree with just about everything you say Ryan, but also lets not forget the power of this man having won the election in the first place. Can’t one look at being the first person of color to win the White House be called a “peaceful revolution”? I think that also played a part in the committee’s decision.

  2. collapse expand

    Poor President Obama. Then again, it must be encouraging to discover that the rest of the world thinks you’re the bee’s knees!

  3. collapse expand


    Another possibility is that the Scandinavians are somehow still a bit ignorant in regards to American politics. If this is indeed a call for reciprocity, they may have shot themselves in the foot. I’m pretty sure Obama is suffering a pretty bad headache for all of this. The distraction can’t be welcome, especially given where we stand on health care reform right now.

    Then again, that’s not to say you’re wrong, only that the Nobel was a miscalculation if that’s what they were up to.

  4. collapse expand

    So lets me see if I got this right.

    When receiving news Obama should have said:

    Whatta ya mean they’re giving me a medal?
    Whatta they want? This some kind of con?
    What’s in it for them?

    And money too?

    It’s gotta be some kind blackmail thing? Yeah the Swedes want to run my foreign policy…yeah, they always wanted that…it gets boring up there in the dark…should just sic Hillary on ‘em…

    Yeah that’s it…they think they can just buy me off.

    Shit they need to know this is the White House not Congress you know?

    Damn Swedes…Peace prize…

    A peace prize from friggin Vikings and a dynamite salesman…what they know about peace? No real American wants a peace prize, yeah get them on the court and see how peaceful I can be.

    They trying to make me look like Carter? A peacenik, human rights…look what happened to him.

    Wait a minute, hold on here…this is an insult to George, right?

    Right…They think they can just announce things without tellin’ me and have the Republicans jump down my throat?

    Yeah…its a conservative Swedish thing…that guy from Ikea…he’s against this environmental talk right, big business thing, bet he doesn’t have health care for his workers here.

    Shit that’s it…bet Rove is behind this, another funding blockbuster, make Acorn look like peanuts.

    Pisses me off.

    The bastards…they can just shove their medal…what?

    How much?


    Damn! that’s a whole lot of dead presidents… or dead kings or queens…whatever.

    Well maybe we can make this work, it’s a hope for the world thing…

    Gotta give it to some charity…..yeah…get Rangel on the phone.

    Now how many troops can we give McCrystal to kick some Muslim butt?

  5. collapse expand

    Mr. Sager,

    I was initially as baffled everyone else. However, whatever else one might think of the Nobel Committee, they are neither stupid nor naïve. They are, I suspect, intentionally putting the Mr. Obama in a tight spot. He is, right now, considering escalating the war in Afghanistan. There is also talk of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He is currently being harangued by his generals. Now he is a Nobel Laureate in Peace. That both increases his stature (oh yes it does) and it makes it rather difficult to for him to then become a war monger. Is the Nobel Committee crazy, maybe, maybe crazy like a fox.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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