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PAC 1 – A symbolic injunction The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Barack Obama

By Josepha Laroche

Translated by Emily Normand

Passage au crible n°1


The 44th president of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, by the Nobel Committee, on Friday, October 9th 2009. This decision has surprised a large number of experts, while amongst more than two hundred nominees, they rather expected the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai, or else a Chinese human rights activist. Numerous voices, such as Prize-winner (1983) Lech Walesa, thus rose to stress “that he had not had the time to do anything!”

Historical background
Theoretical framework

Historical background

It is the third time that a US President in office is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize established in 1901. Indeed, in 1906, the Norwegian Committee had awarded it to the republican Theodore Roosevelt (1905-1909) to recognize his mediation in the Russian-Japanese war of 1905. Then in 1919, it was the turn of the democrat Thomas Woodrow Wilson (two mandates 1913-1921) to see his efforts in favor of the creation of the League of Nations rewarded.

Theoretical framework

This award highlight:

1. A private actor and his authority. Non State Diplomacy – in this case the Nobel Committee – and a certain capacity to impact the world scene must be underlined.
2. Symbolic dimension of international relationship. The conversion of a symbolic resource – the Prize – into a political instrument, gives laureate Obama a global fame which has no connection at all with his presidential statute and a big one with the Nobel Peace Prize.


That it is precisely because he has done nothing yet that President Obama has received the Nobel for Peace. Since his recent election, he has essentially given speeches which marked a total rupture with the policy of his predecessor, the Republican George Bush. But although he had not had time to perform them, he has already shifted the main lines of the foreign policy of the United States and restored the image of his country in the world. In particular, let’s remind you:
1. That he has abandoned the antimissile shield project – denounced by Russia – which should have been deployed in Poland.
2. That he has asserted his commitment to fight against global warming.
3. That he is in favor of a dialog between cultures, particularly with the whole Muslim world.
4. Finally and more still, that he has indicated how much nuclear disarmament in the world would count among his main objectives.

First of all, let us stress that these speeches are more than simple speeches. Indeed, insofar as he is the President of the superpower, it is clear that we are dealing with a performative speech that is to say with a power setting word, producer of reality. In other words, by the mere fact that this speech is given, it becomes by itself, a generator of practical effects: this is not anything. It is obvious that the Nobel Committee has particularly taken this fact into account.

Besides this consideration, it should be well understood that the Nobel Foundation – through its system of prizes – conducts a non State diplomacy control in line with the terms left by Alfred Nobel in his will. Thus, by awarding all its prizes, it continues to mark the international scene with its imprint and influence the policies of the States in accordance with its orientations. Indeed, since its creation, – that is to say for more than a century –– it has defined a certain number of priorities, as international stakes which it then sought to put on the agenda. These deal with 1) the defense of human rights, and with 2) certain political issues to which it intends to bring – in the long term and by a policy of global allocation –, its pledge and its support. In this respect, let us recall that in the past, it has for example encouraged the policy of Detente, through Prize-winners such as Willy Brandt, Lech Walesa, or Michael Gorbatchev. In the same logic, it has supported the fight against apartheid and racism with prizes awarded respectively to John Lutuli, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk. Furthermore, it has also developed a line dedicated to protecting the environment with the election in 2004 of the Kenyan, Wangari Muta Maathai, then in 2007, those of Al Gore and the GIEC Intergovernmental Group of Experts on the evolution of the Climate. Finally, it has constantly worked to promote disarmament in general and nuclear disarmament in particular. As such, we shall mention the election of Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Movement on Science and World Affairs, for the year 1995, while the International Atomic Energy Agency and its Director Mohamed El Baradei were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

Regarding President Obama, it is certain that the Nobel Committee does not intend to reward his policy, nor a fortiori to honor a course of excellence. So much so, that Barack Obama was president for only eleven days, when submission of the nominations was closed. In fact, with this award and the splendor attached to it, the Nobel Committee has chosen to distinguish especially the U.S. President among the other heads of State by conferring him, additional world legitimacy. Since then, he has become the trustee of the Nobel aura and its values. Now, President Obama incarnates a universal project which transcends him. He embodies from now on the Nobel diplomacy instead of being simply the architect of the American diplomacy.

Far from a politically correct decision, as has been said and written, this award reflects an important risk-taking of the Norwegian Committee. More than ever, it commits here all its credit both symbolically and institutionally. This prize must thus be analyzed as a symbolic coup of the Nobel system. It must be understood as an investment, a symbolic downpayment on the politics of the new head of the American State. This prize constrains Barack Obama: it is somehow a way to take him on his word and force him to accomplish all on which he has committed himself.


Laroche Josepha, Les Prix Nobel, Paris, PUF, 1995. Exhausted, will be republished soon.
Fant Kenne, Alfred Nobel, a Biography, New York, Arcade, 1993.
Wade Nicholas, La Course au Nobel, trad., Paris, Messinger, 1981.