Mandela, yes. Tsvangirai even. But Obama?

If I were George W. Bush or Tony Blair, I would be feeling rather sore at the announcement of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. For eight long years Mr Bush and Mr Blair struggled to advance democracy, prevent weapons of mass destruction and combat terrorism without even a sniff of a Nobel prize for their efforts. Admittedly, the Iraq war was a disaster. There were, in the event, no weapons of mass destruction; and Osama bin Laden remains at liberty in his cave.

But no one knew that would be the outcome when they began in 2001. Then it was “glad confident morn”. A lot has happened since. Now Mr Bush and Mr Blair would have little better chance of getting the Nobel Peace Prize than Vladimir Putin for services to peace and security in Georgia.

I don’t expect President Obama to end his term with a comparable record but the truth is that none of us knows. He has been President of the United States for less than nine months. During that period he has made a very impressive and important speech in Cairo on the West’s relations with the Muslim world. He has launched big initiatives on reducing nuclear weapons, galvanising the Israel-Palestine peace process and initiating a dialogue with Iran to resolve historic differences.

However, as of this date the number of nuclear weapons is the same as it was. The Israelis and Palestinians have yet to talk and the Iranians have been found to have a secret factory for enriching uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons.

I do not write to bury President Obama but to praise him. So challenging are the tasks that he has set himself that there never was any serious prospect of breakthroughs in such a short period. Nuclear negotiations with the Russians have, indeed, begun; the Israelis have made some concessions on new settlements and the Iranians seem interested in dialogue. But it is far too soon to be certain that any of these herculean tasks will be achieved.

So why give him the Nobel Peace Prize now? Thorbjørn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awarded the prize, has said: “It was because we would like to support what he is trying to achieve.” That is one of the least convincing explanations that I have heard for a long time.

President Obama is hardly the sort of person who needs encouragement from the Norwegians if he is to continue his efforts. He is unlikely to be saying this morning: “I’d better not give up now that I have won the Nobel Peace Prize.” Nor am I surprised that the committee want to support him. Most of the world does. What we don’t yet know is whether the Iranians, Palestinians and Israelis should be included in that number. The support of the committee in Oslo is unlikely to make that much of a difference to their decisions.

It was not as though there weren’t others nominated who might have a stronger claim. Morgan Tsvangirai, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, has been battling against Robert Mugabe and suffering for years. He has forced Mr Mugabe to share power. He needs all the international support possible to prevent Mr Mugabe’s attempts to make a mockery of his role as Prime Minister.

If I was unkind I would suspect that the Nobel committee are very keen to get Barack Obama to Oslo to receive the prize. Every country in the world would like a visit by the current US President. Most are likely to be disappointed. The most recent visit by the President to Scandinavia was his doomed attempt to win the Olympics for Chicago in Copenhagen. A visit to Norway in December to receive the peace prize would be much more agreeable.

Whatever their motives, the decision of the committee to give the peace prize so early to President Obama was perverse and premature. The prize, the most prestigious of its kind in the world, should be given in either of two sets of circumstances.

It is appropriate, most of all, when someone, by their own efforts, has changed the world, and changed it for the better. Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev were undisputed examples of deserving recipients. There was great logic, although substantial controversy, in the award to Henry Kissinger for his work to end the Vietnam War; and to Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

The prize is also appropriate where someone has campaigned for years for a peaceful resolution of a great crisis but has not yet succeeded. The awards to Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama were fully justified, although they have yet to succeed in their efforts.

Perhaps the Nobel committee should have reminded themselves of the citation when they awarded the peace prize to another President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, in 2002. It was given “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts”.

Note the words “decades of untiring effort”. Until 2004 Obama was a local politician in Illinois. Until nine months ago he was one of 100 members of the US Senate. If Mr Carter had to toil for decades to win his prize many, including Mr Obama’s most fervent admirers, might conclude that nine months is too little time to determine his place in history. Mr Obama appeared to acknowledge this in his speech at the White House yesterday. To have refused to accept the prize might have seemed ungracious. But the President knows, as well as anyone, that the jury is still out.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary between 1992-97. He is MP for Kensington and Chelsea.