‘Surprise’ Nobel for Obama called ‘marvelous’

Posted Oct. 09, 2009, at 9:24 p.m.

CAMDEN, Maine — Area foreign policy and political experts reacted Friday to the news of the president’s surprise award of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize with sentiments ranging from doubt to delight.

They also acknowledged the expectation that the backlash might hurt Barack Obama at home even as the award burnishes his reputation abroad.

“It is a marvelous thing for the United States,” said Seth Singleton, professor of international relations at the University of Maine. “It certainly acknowledges the United States as a leading force of good in the world. Certainly it’s going to help us pursue good and peaceful solutions to all sorts of problems around the world.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded President Obama the prestigious prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” according to the prize citation, and also for his work toward nuclear disarmament.

The nod was particularly unusual because it seems to recognize the president’s potential rather than his accomplishments, the experts said. Although it likely will enhance the president’s standing in the international community, it’s no fix-all for the country’s foreign policy problems, said Jim Matlack, program director of the Camden Conference.

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The conference is a nonpartisan educational organization, which aims to foster “informed discourse” on world affairs. The 23rd annual conference in February is called “Afghanistan, Pakistan, India — Crossroads of Conflict,” an area where Matlack doubts the Nobel Prize will matter all that much.

“The effect of the prize may be nonexistent in some of the toughest [issues and crises,]” Matlack said. “I am delighted, but it doesn’t guarantee any more success in these complex negotiations.”

The prize probably will guarantee the president more success in one area: “soft power,” according to University of Maine international relations professor Paul Holman.

Hard power is military power, and the power to kill or destroy, Holman said. Soft power, on the other hand, comprises the power of law, economic power and information.

“It’s the power to persuade, the power to change minds,” Holman said. “Winning the Nobel Prize will help Obama do that all over the world. He’ll win more hearts than he’ll lose.”

The experts agreed, however, that the news won’t help Obama with American hearts he already has lost or never won in the first place — especially with the significant percentage who do not place international cooperation at the top of the list of national goals.

“The people who are opposed to him because of his foreign policy views — those kinds of people aren’t going to suddenly say, because he won the Nobel, he’s clearly doing the right thing,” said Mark Brewer, an associate political science professor at the University of Maine. “Among some of those people there is outright disdain of agencies such as the United Nations … showing that the United States is willing to work through institutions like the U.N. That is just going to incense a number of conservatives, who think that stuff is useless at best and almost illegitimate at worst.”

Singleton took a more optimistic stance, arguing that the award accelerates the movement away from the national focus on terrorism and waging war against terrorism.

“I think it will be harder for President Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan at this point, because that doesn’t seem like making peace in the world,” he said.

Although Singleton said he was “totally surprised” when he heard about the award, he doesn’t feel it’s unearned.

“Obama has done something quite remarkable,” he said. “He’s taken the world’s most powerful country and changed the course significantly.”

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