A little more than four years ago, the Norwegian Nobel Committee embarrassed President Barack Obama with an unearned Peace Prize.
The announcement praised him for having “created a new climate in international politics”; but the weather soon changed again. The committee also “has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons,” the announcement said.
Obama responded with a clever defensive maneuver: He traveled to Oslo to give a defense of war. But he has spent much of the following four years working — at times, an extremely high cost, in domestic politics and in other U.S. interests and relationships — to earn his prize on something more than “vision.” He cut a new START treaty with Russia, cutting the two countries’ nuclear arsenals after tense negotiations. He traded plans to tip the balance of power against Bashar al Assad in Syria for a chemical weapons clean-up. And in Geneva, he and Secretary of State John Kerry pushed harder and got further toward an interim agreement to stop Iran from making nuclear weapons than many thought possible.
Obama was elected as an anti-war figure, but his legacy has been split between winding down two wars and escalating America’s campaign of drone strikes and paramilitary raids in a region ranging from Pakistan to Somalia. At the White House Saturday night, he made clear how he wants to be remembered:
“I have a profound responsibility to try to resolve our differences peacefully, rather than rush toward conflict,” the president said.
Obama, who has shifted as much as most politicians on many issues, has been fairly consistent on this. He came of political age in the campus anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, and made his political career with a then-meaningless decision in 2002 to oppose the Iraq war, has always seen issues of war, peace, and diplomacy differently than most of his peers. At a presidential campaign debate in South Carolina in 2007, he took a left-field question about sit-down meetings with the leaders of Iran, North Korea, and other hostile nations. Obama promised to sit down with those leaders in his first year, a gaffe so outrageous that his aides immediately tried to spin it away to reporters — before finding that the candidate’s instinct had been right, and voters liked the idea.
But it was most of all the moment Obama almost went to war — threatening to strike Syria after Assad’s mass deployment of chemical weapons in August – that showed his discomfort with open conflict. It was never quite clear what the president wanted to achieve, or how. His decision to roll back the threat of strikes by taking the issue to Congress has been all but forgotten by the American people, but it has emboldened the regime of Bashar al-Assad and one of its main backers, Russia, who now see him as deeply weak.
Friendlier relations with Iran could remake the context of that conflict as well, if they open doors to cooperation beyond the nuclear issue. Now, it seems, Obama has spent his presidency marching towards those doors – burning many allies in his wake, from Israel to Saudi Arabia. Other former strategic U.S. interests have been all but ignored – Egypt as it descends into military dictatorship, Ukraine and Georgia as they fall back into Russia’s orbit.
But presidents must have priorities and Obama has made his clear. Now he’s earned the foreign policy legacy he campaigned on. And now perhaps the Norwegians can feel a bit more confident about their hasty reward.