Obama’s Nobel: The View of an Insider

Bernard Lown, MD

The Nobel Peace Prize, the most highly regarded of global recognitions, is frequently controversial. The surprise designation of President Barack Obama as a Nobel recipient was greeted in the American media with ambivalence and even disdain. Some commentators suggested that being in office a mere nine months did not allow for an imprint on global policy or an amassing of humanitarian deeds deserving the Peace Prize. Disparaging words cascaded from the punditocracy about Obama’s pretty phrases and empty promises. The New York Times opined, “Normally the prize is presented, even controversially, for accomplishments,” and the Chicago Tribune headlined, “Europeans honor U.S. president for not being Bush.”

The left was even more strident. The distinguished historian Howard Zinn wrote, “I was dismayed when I heard Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize. A shock, really, to think that a president carrying on wars in two countries and launching military action in a third country (Pakistan), would be given a peace prize.”(1) The brilliant progressive commentator Naomi Klein cited chapter and verse describing how Obama’s government had sustained and even strengthened many Bush policies that weakened international governance.(2)

These questionings and disputes brought back memories. Twenty-four years earlier the Soviet cardiologist Eugene Chazov and I were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which we had co-founded four years earlier.(3) Our award evoked a storm of virulent protests. For selecting us the Norwegian committee was accused of pro-Soviet partisanship in the Cold War. That was far-fetched. Norway was the most orthodox member of NATO, and its foreign policy hewed to every breeze out of Washington.

The rhetoric against us was far more vitriolic than it has been against Obama. While IPPNW was punched with a mailed fist, Obama was gently brushed with a velvet glove. Writing about the 1985 award, Forbes magazine editorialized, “The Norwegian Nobel Committee blew it.” The New York Daily News headlined, “Soviet Propaganda Wins the Prize.” The Detroit News insisted that the Nobel Committee “rendered a significant disservice to the cause of peace.” NATO countries urged the Nobel Committee to rescind the prize. The U.S. Senate resolved that the U.S. ambassador to Norway remonstrate with the committee on its poor choice.

The clobbering we were subjected to in the Western media led us to several conclusions. First, that we had been effective in focusing on the criminality and imbecility of the nuclear arms race, thereby stomping on the establishment’s gouty toes. We had exposed the asymmetry of the Cold War, wherein the U.S. surged ahead with nuclear modernization while the Soviets were increasingly falling behind. This obvious fact was apparently not to be broached. We had demonstrated that the Soviets were searching for common ground and were ready to compromise. This ran counter to the unprecedented propaganda that NATO and Washington had mounted. The assault against IPPNW was intended to counteract the favorable public attention, the sense of righteousness and nobility of purpose, that the prize confers on its recipients.

I was puzzled why the Norwegians had stepped out of line. The century-long history of the Nobel Committee shows how intimate was the relationship between the committee and the Norwegian government. Jorgen Løvland, first chair of the committee, was at the same time prime minister (later, foreign minister). The tension between the Nobel mandate and politicians led the Storting, or Norwegian Parliament, in 1937 to exclude active politicians from membership. Despite those wholesome intentions, members of the Storting continued to be appointed until the Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973. Much of the worldwide outrage was undoubtedly provoked by the war in Vietnam, of which Kissinger was a leading architect. From that year onward, no members of the Storting had seats on the committee.

Denying government politicians membership on the Nobel Committee did not insulate the selection from politics. Norway is a small country with a population less than the state of Massachusetts. Thorbjorn Jagland, the head of the committee that selected Obama, was Norway’s prime minister a decade ago, and he is a leading member of the Labour Party, the senior party of the present governing coalition.

Probing why the IPPNW was chosen for the Nobel found me poking into a buzzing beehive. Selecting a nominee, as one Nobel Committee member related, is a profoundly political act, and sometimes the decisive voices are far from Norway. “Big brother” has a say. My informant was conveying that Washington was at times in the loop. I was dismayed to learn that IPPNW was not the intended recipient until shortly before the announcement in October. The  laureate for 1985 was Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and writer. He was a favorite of the Reagan administration. Pressure from the White House had been unprecedented and forced the NC to cave in.

What caused the committee to change awardees almost at the finish line? Foremost, I believe, was a sense of dread about the intensifying Cold War. Both superpowers were acting as though war was imminent. Unless the arms race was reversed, a nuclear confrontation seemed inevitable. President Reagan’s reelection the preceding year was an ominous bellwether. He was scaring Europeans with a seemingly cowboy-like trivialization of the growing threat to human survival. Reagan’s menacing joke, “We are bombing the Soviet Union in five minutes,” uttered into a live radio microphone, sent a chill through the USSR and the rest of the world. The utter bleakness of the global political scene imparted a sense of urgency. Were a nuclear war to erupt, loyalty to NATO would not protect Norway from being scorched and irradiated. Anointing Wiesel with a Nobel would do nothing to counteract these cascading and threatening developments.

The announced Reagan-Gorbachev summit to take place in Geneva in late November 1985 was a tipping development accounting for the last-minute change in laureates. Since the selection of the Peace Prize was to be announced in early October, the committee had a six-week window to influence public opinion and affect the deliberations in Geneva. The Nobel recipient should be a peace activist concentrating on nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, the activities of any potential recipient should have addressed a major cause of the hostility between the superpowers, namely, an absence of dialogue and a paucity of trust. To halt the galloping nuclear arms race required confidence-building measures characterized by a willingness to compromise in order for cooperation to take precedence over confrontation. On all these scores IPPNW perfectly fit the bill.

But how to deal with Washington’s insistence that Wiesel be the chosen one? A compromise was reached, with the Reagan administration agreeing to postpone his Nobel selection until the following year. I was privy to a most carefully guarded secret, one that evokes intense global speculation and Las Vegas-like wagers. While the media engage in all types of hokey sleuthing to learn the prize-winner’s name a week or even a few days ahead, I knew the identity one year in advance. Perhaps never before had there been such a long hiatus between selecting and announcing the recipient.

During my several visits to Oslo I gained some insight into the permanent forces operating in the choice of a Peace Prize laureate. For this “insider,” the choice of Obama is impeccably logical. The Nobel proclamation weaves the arguments in favor of his being selected. Highlighted are two elements, namely, Obama’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy and his vision of a world free from nuclear arms.

It was widely recognized that President George W. Bush had created an unprecedented crisis for industrialized capitalist countries. His policies were wrecking not only NATO, but the dominant world order as well. The award declaration stated, “Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics.” More correctly it should have said that he restored the pre-Bush climate.

So what is this world climate? In essence it is the North-South divide. It is a continuing legacy of Christopher Columbus, a historical era when great wealth was plundered, when indigenous cultures were uprooted, when native populations were subjected to genocide. The human chattel and undreamed-of riches of the new world provided muscle and sinew for the Industrial Revolution. Euro-American affluence rests in no small measure on the poverty inflicted on the Third World.

In fact, we are still living in the Columbus era. The transfer of wealth from rich to poor is continuing at an accelerated pace. People in the Third World live as outsiders in their own home, excluded from social privilege and bereft of political control. The claims of luxury are pitted against the claims of subsistence. Simply stated, the divide results from a global division of labor wherein the South’s resources are bought cheap, while the North’s technology is sold dear. This world order is founded on inequality and injustice, where some can luxuriate in unimagined abundance while others cannot even eat enough, though they do not cease to toil.

The United States, with its 750 military bases girdling the world, its mammoth military expenditures, its robotic killing technologies, maintains this order. Under Bush the charade of promoting democracy, spreading the blessings of liberty, and sharing the abundance of the free market were being exposed as fiction thereby undermining mass support for the Atlantic pact. Obama restores the soothing gentility without much altering the commitment to maintaining the present world order. Illusion once again dominates reality. If Obama can sustain this crumbling order, surely he deserves some sort of award, but not one aiming to foster peace.


  1. Zinn H.  Nobel Prize Promises. OpEd: Truthout; October 10, 2009.
  2. Klein N. Obama’s Bad Influence. The Nation November 2, 2009.
  3. Lown B. “Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness.” Berrett Koehler Publishers Inc. San Francisco .

5 responses to “Obama’s Nobel: The View of an Insider

  1. Bernard :

    Bernard: Thought-provoking as usual! I’m also surprised, astonished and somewhat perplexed at some of the revelations.
    Just read this blog and I’m in need of a little time to digest.
    On the morning of the announcement of Obama’s slection I awoke to Maxine’s question – who do you think won the Nobel Peace Prize (she had just heard the announcment on the radio). Obama’s name had been on my mind. Can you imagine our joy! And, of course our thoughts returned to that great experience of a lifetime – Oslo, 1985- the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to IPPNW – the tremendous jubilation of the award itself – but, most of all, the joy and satifaction of being able to share the experience with colleagues from around the world who toiled diligently, persistently and endlessly toward awakening of other professionals and people around the planet to the immediacy of an unprecedented and scarcely imaginable threat to all of humankind. More important was the unequivocal call to action to get the message out that the medical consequences of a nuclear war could not be treated – and that prevention was (and still is) the over-riding imperative of the nuclear age. I view IPPNW, its concept, formation and the rapidity of its success in enlisting the creative skills of physicians from around the world toward a common preventive medical goal – as nothing less than miracluous! The story is endless, summoning the whole gamut of human emotion on the part of those who undertook to meet the challenge. And the task remains – as daunting as ever! Bernard, a few observations: First, the development of IPPNW especially in attracting the widespread and dedicated involvement of medical students . It is apparent to me that this has been a rewarding pillar in their personal and professional development . As a consequence, I believe these young people will be in a better position to provide the quality of human thinking and leadership essential to survival. For that reason, I believe it timely to call upon our contemporaries to renew their committment through reaching out and partnering with our younger colleagues in a variety of ways to enhance the goal of a healthy planet. Before signing off I need clarification re: para 8 which seemed to be unfinished. (or am I missing something?). Lastly, while I respect your views on north/south issues , I am unable to connect them with the main theme of the awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to Obama. Thanks for your thoughts. Ed Crispin.

  2. Bernard, When President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, of course, as your editor for “Prescription for Survival,” my thoughts turned to the IPPNW award 24 years ago. In your memoir you gave the reader the complicated, messy truth, not the easy version. There are not good guys and bad guys in your cast of characters; no one has an absolute claim on the moral high ground, not the Russians, and not the Americans, not even Americans in noble social movements. You portrayed your own role and that of your colleagues with all the courage, confusion, clarity and flaws of human beings. I find many comparisons to President Obama’s difficult work at hand, the way he is taking responsibility, and the reasons it was right for him to receive award him the Nobel Peace Prize. Let me say a few more words about your book before I go back to President Obama. “Prescription for Survival” flows beyond the boundaries of its subject matter, the prevention of nuclear war, into a living example of how to accomplish a difficult task of great importance to oneself, and humankind. Your recent blog entry takes the story forward to the present day. Now back to President Obama. On 4/18/07 Thomas Friedman wrote in the NY Times, “It seems to me that the strongest case one could make for an Obama presidency right now is rarely articulated: It is his potential to repair the broken relationship between America and the world.” In my opinion, Friedman’s words can be used to provide a fundamental justification, from the standpoint of the world community, for both the 1985 award to IPPNW and the 2009 award to President Obama. I join Ed Crispin in saying, “can you imagine my joy!” Thank you for all you have done to get the world this far. Your book is a manual for community organizers at the highest level, in the most difficult times, and I hope that President Obama will read it and see himself walking in your shoes.

  3. Barbara H. Roberts

    Dear Bernard:

    Thank you for this fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the Nobel committee.

    I’m still not sure how you feel about Obama being the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. You write: “Under Bush the charade of promoting democracy, spreading the blessings of liberty, and sharing the abundance of the free market were being exposed as fiction thereby undermining mass support for the Atlantic pact. Obama restores the soothing gentility without much altering the commitment to maintaining the present world order.”

    But no rational person can think that Obama would have been elected President if he showed the slightest sign of wanting to change the present world order. And after eight years of Bush, soothing gentility is as refreshing as it is cause for cautious optimism.

    Perhaps the Nobel committee hoped that yoking Obama’s name to the cause of peace early on in his presidency would influence him to be less bellicose than his predecessors. Perhaps they were just rewarding his (as yet unfulfilled) promises to close Guantanamo and end the war in Iraq. Perhaps they were just hebephrenic after the doublespeak of the Bush years. We may never know. But as you point out, controversy has dogged the choices of the Nobel committee before, and will no doubt do so again.

    I would like to raise another issue, and that is the paucity of women winners, despite the long history of women’s involvement in every peace movement that has existed. Of the 97 individual winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, only eleven have been women (and another, Jody Miller, accepted the prize in 1997 on behalf of the Campaign To Ban Land Mines). Just as there is a North South Divide, there is a Male Female Divide, with women underrepresented in the halls of power, underpaid for their economic activity, more likely to be illiterate and more likely to be victims of domestic and sexual violence. If the North South Divide were wiped out tomorrow women would still be oppressed.

  4. Dear Dr. Bernard Lown,

    As one who has worked tirelessly for the cause of peace yourself I would hope that your efforts to raise the bar so to speak on the folly of retaliation for any egregious act of violence, whether verbal or the vehemently intended casting of stones in diverse form, is finally heard by all world leaders. There is a grass roots tendency to believe that all great change comes from the ground up. I would argue for non-arguing sake that the debate on how change for the better actually occurs is not within the presidencies, parliaments, senates, congresses or other seats of power but rather from the power within in each of us to change our thoughts about the world condition. This condition I speak of is one you know quite intimately from a physical world perspective as the heart of gold within each of us quite literally. With the greatest concentration of the metal in our bodies lying at the heart of the matter, this needs no other metaphor explained.

    It is with heavy heart that I write to you with the awareness of what needs to change in order for the words of your most recent book to be taken seriously and taken to heart as a prescription for health for us all. This may all seem too metaphoric to be fully understood by all, yet getting to the heart of our concerns may also be the easiest way to get the point across to the masses. It would seem you have been given an assignment that would seem daunting to most people yet you still persevere as you did with your work that lead you and Dr. Evgueni Chazov to start the IPPNW in an effort to have your message understood. Fortunately that message was heard by others who took it to a larger audience awareness as editor Dr. Joseph Garland and the Nobel Peace Prize committee recognized the need.

    I would challenge you to also add another message to your efforts. That message it to have each world leader acknowledge that world peace can only occur once it is realized that it begins within each of us as a thought. This thought may seem trivial given the world situation where unpeaceful thoughts seem to predominate. The choice to offer another view on this subject lies in the very nature of why the Nobel Peace Prize committee chose to boldly declare the reason for their choice this year. When the Nobel Peace Prize committee decided to award this year’s honor to President Obama I was moved not so much by their choice creating an historical precedence of a sitting president receiving the award but more for the reasons they voiced as to why they decided to make President Obama their choice.

    The committee seemed to be saying that what moved them was not just his multilateral diplomacy and his vision of a world free from nuclear arms, but how President Obama’s community organizing experience had demonstrated the potential of it to be taken to a larger scale by his intent to do so. With their acknowledgement of this they exalted the idea that within the smallest local actions for peace lay the tilling groundwork for the seeds of peace in us all. They voiced what was in their hearts as you did when you heard within your own heart the day you listened to the presentation by Nobel Peace Prize winner Philip Noel-Baker in Cambridge. Why work healing others if the power to kill still remains in the hands of one person to kill millions with the pull of a lever or push of a button. It does not matter whether that one person is told on command by another.

    It may take a village to use a community organizing expression, but it takes just one person, as one village of cells to declare what needs to gleam in the hearts and minds of us all. This village lies within the heart of gold in each of us as our desire to no longer kill or be killed as an answer to anything. It need not take a village to proclaim an end to endings as merciful. Mercifully peacefulness comes from a peaceful heart as peace of mind.

    Most recently I witnessed a friend die at the hands of his wife after she decided she could no longer keep her husband alive without home nursing care which she felt she could not afford. After many hours of sad decision making she took her husband off life support in the privacy of their home. It saddened me for a variety of reasons to witness such a thing. I am writing you to ask that you add to your plea to end all armaments for war a greater understanding of what leads to it as an answer to anything. What leads to it needs to be recognized as the insane belief that death offers the end of pain and suffering in the world. This may sound like a radical idea to the degree that you have declared your own. It is however justification for so much more then a wife wanting to end her husband’s pain and suffering as a merciful death. Our inner most longings are to be free from the fear that someone known or unknown has that power over us.

    Alice Yeager
    Founder and President
    American Healing Arts Alliance Inc.

  5. However, his detention has not stopped Xiaobo from acting
    as an outspoken critic of Chinese authorities. He approached them through what he liked to call “preventive diplomacy” and
    while doing so sought to establish more independence and effectiveness
    in the post of Secretary-General itself. Relationships amongst people are difficult but they are oh, so valuable and rewarding.

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