Rewarding Hope: Why Barack Obama Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

On April 12, 2007, at a Washington, D.C. breakfast briefing, Senator Barack Obama discussed the "genocide that did take place against the Armenian people," and the fact that "the constant denial on the part of the Turkish government and others that this occurred has become a sore spot diplomatically." The then long-shot Democratic presidential candidate was referring to the deliberate and systematic massacre of between 500,000 and a million and a half Armenians by Ottoman government authorities between 1915 and 1918. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama also told Armenian Americans that as president, "I will promote Armenian security by seeking an end to the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades, and by working for a lasting and durable settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict [between Armenia and Azerbaijan] that is agreeable to all parties."

The Turkish government, an important ally of the United States, has been vehemently opposed for decades to any characterization of the atrocities committed against Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. During the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush pledged that "If elected President, I would ensure that our nation properly recognizes the tragic suffering of the Armenian people." He never honored this promise. On the contrary, in 2006, the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia was recalled from his post after he had referred to the massacre of Armenians as "genocide" at an Armenian American community function. And the following year, under pressure from Turkey, the Bush Administration strongly opposed a House of Representatives resolution that classified the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.

In contrast, President Obama, rather than pandering to either side, used his moral authority, his bully pulpit as it were, to honor his campaign pledge and help bring about an Armenian-Turkish reconciliation. On April 6, 2009, President Obama told the Turkish Parliament in Ankara that: "Human endeavor is by its nature imperfect. History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there's strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And while there's been a good deal of commentary about my views, it's really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive. We've already seen historic and courageous steps taken by Turkish and Armenian leaders. These contacts hold out the promise of a new day. An open border would return the Turkish and Armenian people to a peaceful and prosperous coexistence that would serve both of your nations. So I want you to know that the United States strongly supports the full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. It is a cause worth working toward."

President Obama's efforts to promote an Armenian-Turkish dialogue predicated on, and within the context of, memory are consistent with his overall geo-political philosophy. "It's perhaps the most difficult work of all," he declared at Strasbourg, France, three days before his Ankara speech, " to resolve age-old conflicts, to heal ancient hatreds, to dissolve the lines of suspicion between religions and cultures, and people who may not look like us, or have the same faith that we do, or come from the same place. But just because it's difficult does not make the work any less important. It does not absolve us from trying."

On October 10, 2009, six months after President Obama's Ankara speech and one day after he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia signed an historic accord normalizing relations between their two countries.

President Obama's words in Ankara were far more than rhetoric. By encouraging and urging both Turks and Armenians to reach beyond, but without losing sight of, their divisive past, he enabled a genuine process of reconciliation to take root.

The media pundits and Republican Party hacks who complain that President Obama has not earned the Nobel Peace Prize, that he has not yet accomplished anything of consequence in the international arena, are wrong.

In less than nine months since taking office, President Obama has changed the image the international community has of the United States, not just through televised speeches from the White House, but by speaking directly to the peoples of the world at the United Nations General Assembly and in England, Turkey, the Czech Republic, France, Trinidad and Tobago, Egypt, Germany, Ghana, and Russia.

The President has traveled thousands of miles to tell men, women and children across the globe, national leaders and average citizens alike, that after eight years of xenophobia and jingoism the United States has returned to its historical role as a unifying catalyst of humankind. He has reached out to rich and poor, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Jews, to reassure them that the nation he leads and represents has once again become, for them as well, to borrow Ronald Reagan's phrase, a "shining city on the hill."

The pundits are wrong when they say that speeches do not matter. On the contrary, words by definition are the clearest expression of one's intentions, of one's hopes. My teacher and mentor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, once observed that "Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds." The words President Obama has spoken across the globe since his inauguration are evidence of what the Norwegian Nobel Committee called his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."

At a press conference in London on April 2, 2009, following the economic G-20 summit, President Obama said: "Ultimately, the challenges of the 21st century can't be met without collective action. Agreement will almost never be easy, and results won't always come quickly. But I am committed to respecting different points of view, and to forging a consensus instead of dictating our terms. . . . There are going to be tough negotiations, and sometimes we're going to have to walk away from those negotiations if we can't arrive at a common accord. There are going to be real dangers that can't always be talked through and have to be addressed. But at least we can start with the notion that we're prepared to listen and to work cooperatively with countries around the world."

The following day, in Strasbourg, he described the sense of distrust and mutual antagonism that had come to define U.S.-European relations over the past eight years. "In America," he said, "there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive." At the same time, he continued, "in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what's bad. On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. . . . They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated. They fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America."

On April 4, in Prague, President Obama declared: "Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. And as nuclear power - as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change."

On April 6 he told the Turkish Parliament in Ankara that "our two democracies are confronted by an unprecedented set of challenges: An economic crisis that recognizes no borders; extremism that leads to the killing of innocent men and women and children; strains on our energy supply and a changing climate; the proliferation of the world's deadliest weapons; and the persistence of tragic conflict. . . . This much is certain: No one nation can confront these challenges alone, and all nations have a stake in overcoming them. That is why we must listen to one another, and seek common ground. That is why we must build on our mutual interests, and rise above our differences. We are stronger when we act together."

Words matter. Speeches matter. President Obama recognizes that our form of government and our way of life should be an inspiration but may not be the template for every other country in the world. "I feel very strongly," he said at a press conference in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on April 19, "that when we are at our best, the United States represents a set of universal values and ideals - the idea of democratic practices, the idea of freedom of speech and religion, the idea of a civil society where people are free to pursue their dreams and not be imposed upon constantly by their government. So we've got a set of ideas that I think have broad applicability. But what I also believe is that other countries have different cultures, different perspectives, and are coming out of different histories, and that we do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example."

Along the same lines, he told the Ghanaian Parliament on July 11 that: "America will not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation. The essential truth of democracy is that each nation determines its own destiny. But what America will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and responsible institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance - on parliaments, which check abuses of power and ensure that opposition voices are heard; on the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice; on civic participation, so that young people get involved; and on concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting and automating services, strengthening hotlines, protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability."

He also understands that American foreign policy must not be rooted in expedient self-interest alone, but requires an appreciation and understanding of history. "This place teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we must reject the false comfort that others' suffering is not our problem and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to serve their own interests," he said on June 5 at the site of the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald, standing alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel.

The following day, at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial near Omaha Beach, he explained that while war is never to be undertaken lightly, there are times when war is essential. "Nazi ideology," he said, "sought to subjugate and humiliate and exterminate. It perpetrated murder on a massive scale, fueled by a hatred of those who were deemed different and therefore inferior. It was evil. The nations that joined together to defeat Hitler's Reich were not perfect. . . But whatever God we prayed to, whatever our differences, we knew that the evil we faced had to be stopped. Citizens of all faiths and of no faith came to believe that we could not remain as bystanders to the savage perpetration of death and destruction. And so we joined and sent our sons to fight and often die so that men and women they never met might know what it is to be free."

Words matter. Speeches matter. In Moscow on July 7, President Obama set a new course for American-Russian relations. Instead of continued mistrust, he called for cooperation. Instead of looking for ways to repeat the Cold War strategies and rhetoric of the past, he looked toward a different, far more constructive interaction. "There is," he said, "the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another. Both assumptions are wrong. In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over. As I said in Cairo, given our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game - progress must be shared."

Throughout the first nine months of his presidency, President Obama has sought to improve American-Muslim relations, a much needed change from eight years of virtually non-stop xenophobia on the part of the Bush-Cheney Administration. In Ankara, the President said that: "We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree." And two months later, at Cairo University, he declared: "So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

Expanding on this theme, he emphasized that "I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. . . . We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words - within our borders, and around the world."

President Obama has also charted a new direction in trying to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Cairo, he reaffirmed his and the U.S. Government's unwavering support for Israel and, speaking to the Muslim world, denounced Holocaust denial in the most categorical terms. "Threatening Israel with destruction - or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews - is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve." At the same time, he recognized that, "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." He simultaneously demanded that the Palestinians end terrorist attacks against Israel, and that Israel curb its settlement policy on the West Bank. "America will align our policies with those who pursue peace," he said, "and we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true."

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process still has a long way, possibly years to go. Far too many obstacles remain, mostly on the Palestinian side. While the settlements are at worst a political irritant, Hamas suicide bombers threaten the very viability of any Israeli flexibility or willingness to compromise. However, President Obama has reclaimed the role of an honest broker for the United States. Israelis have always known that the road to any peace must be through Washington. Now, Palestinians and other Arabs have once again begun to believe so as well. That in and of itself is a considerable achievement.

"All of us," he declared in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, "not just the Israelis and the Palestinians, but all of us - must decide whether we are serious about peace, or whether we will only lend it lip service. To break the old patterns, to break the cycle of insecurity and despair, all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private. The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians. And nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks against Israel over constructive willingness to recognize Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security."

President Obama's restoration of the United States to a position of international moral leadership, not just among its allies but within the world community as a whole, deserves respect and praise from all who seek to avoid interminable rounds of fear, bloodshed and misery. One year ago, it was virtually inconceivable that Russia might cooperate with the United States in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Words matter. Speeches matter. But, as President Obama acknowledged in Cairo, "recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all."

Still, forging such a future requires a call to arms. In Normandy, President Obama explained that "our future is not shaped by mere chance or circumstance. Our history has always been the sum total of the choices made and the actions taken by each individual man and woman. It has always been up to us."

The Norwegian Nobel Committee understood that the words Barack Obama spoke this past year in Moscow, Cairo, London, Ankara, Port of Spain, Strasbourg, Prague, Accra, and Normandy, at Buchenwald, and at the United Nations form the foundation for a new, constructive dynamic in international relations. By awarding President Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, the Committee recognized that the beginning of any comprehensive effort to repair and heal our troubled world is as important, requires as much vision and moral leadership, and can be as dauntingly complex as its eventual realization.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School.