Nobel Peace prize: why it's right to encourage hope

Posted November 20, 2009

Nobel Peace prize: why it's right to encourage hope

I was initially puzzled when US President Barack Obama was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace prize. It seemed a bit premature.

He is, after all, only in the first year of his Presidency and it’s much too soon to speak of any lasting legacy. Even he seemed taken aback by the gesture. So why did the Nobel Committee award him such an accolade? In a nutshell – it’s because he inspires hope. The Committee described Obama as someone who has “captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for the future” and it believes that he should be recognised and encouraged right now. On this occasion the Committee appeared to place as much importance on the bold act of trying to make a difference as the actual delivery of results. Maybe it has a point.

I vividly recall a poignant time in my own country’s history when someone tried to make a difference against all the odds. Her name was Mairead Corrigan Maguire and she, along with her fellow campaigner Betty Williams, led the Northern Ireland peace movement that mobilised thousands of people in an attempt to end The Troubles. For a while it looked as if they would bring about the resolution they sought but eventually their support fizzled out and hard-headed sectarianism won the day. Hope was dashed by intransigence.

Mairead Maguire received the Nobel prize in 1976 for her efforts and she’s the last person I expected to be critical of Obama’s nomination. So I was surprised when she said that she was “very sad” to hear of his award. The reason she gave was that it didn’t meet the award conditions which stipulate that the prize should only be given to “people who end militarism and war and are for disarmament.” She feels that Obama falls short because he has yet to end the war in Afghanistan.

Is she being too idealistic?  Can any major world leader categorically denounce all military action? As much as I would like to see it happen, life just doesn’t work that way. Perhaps the Nobel Committee, in a healthy dose of reality, recognises that the subtle art of diplomacy is a powerful form of positive action in itself.  It spoke of Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons and how this has led to disarmament and arms negotiations. His leadership style is described as being founded on “values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population."

Hope is a flighty thing. It can grow or evaporate. There are no guarantees that the act of inspiring hope will actually change things. The Northern Ireland peace movement is a testimony to that hard reality. Some would argue that Mairead Maguire failed. I don’t see it that way. I believe she planted the seeds of hope but it took many years before they fully took hold. The awarding of her Noble prize at that time however was a huge endorsement for everyone who desired peace but were caught up in the violence of their surroundings. 

Who knows if Obama can bring about the change he desires. I have no idea whether he sees the award as a help or a burden. It must be hard to keep going when all the dice appear loaded against you and we should be grateful to those who try to make a difference rather than do nothing. I believe that Maguire and Obama are not different in this respect and both deserve their prizes.





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