At first glance, Obama’s Nobel peace prize looks like a “Thanks For Not Being Bush” award. The deadline for nominations was, after all, only a couple of weeks after Obama took office and his main achievement at that time was to replace George Bush. Partly for that reason, it may not help the new president very much in his domestic battles. The people who are currently accusing him of betraying American interests to please foreigners will see this award as further proof. Especially as it comes so soon after Al Gore’s win.
However, Obama’s success so far has been to defuse a good deal of international tension without giving much away. He has simply plucked the low-hanging diplomatic fruit that had dangled for so long above the Bush administration. The arms control agreement with Russia will be technically complex to complete on deadline in December, but it is straightforward in essence. It is in both countries’ interests to dispense with hundreds (and eventually thousands) of surplus warheads that are expensive to maintain.
Obama harnessed the task to the long-term vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, which is a cost-free commitment in practice because he conceded it might not happen in his lifetime. But it caught the attention of emerging states without nuclear weapons, whose support is essential to rebuild the tattered nuclear non-proliferation treaty next year.
Abandoning the Bush-era plans for missile defence in eastern Europe, removed a huge obstacle to better relations with Russia, again at arguably little cost to national security. The scheme was untested and there were real doubts over whether it would ever work. The short-range system that will replace it, dependent largely on ship-borne Aegis anti-ballistic missiles, will be more effective against the sort of missiles Iran has, and will not be seen as a serious threat by Russia.
Likewise, the US-Russian-French offer to Iran to process its uranium, thereby buying time for more diplomacy, is a creative attempt to break the nuclear impasse with Tehran, and find common cause between Washington and Moscow on the issue. It may still be scuppered by the Iranian regime, and does not deal with the heart of the problem, but it offers the hope of defusing tensions at a time the talk has been of possible Israeli military strikes and “crippling sanctions”.
That is quite an impressive list for nine months in office, all achieved by imaginative and energetic diplomacy. But it stops short of solid, irrevocable achievements, which will require real strategic compromises.
Obama has not yet persuaded the Pentagon and Congress to sign on to deep cuts in the US Nuclear Posture Review. Negotiations over a new climate change treaty and a new non-proliferation treaty still loom in the months ahead. Iran may spurn everything it is offered and set in motion a Middle East arms race. Israel, the region’s only nuclear power, has snubbed Obama and refused to freeze settlement building, setting a Middle East peace deal out of reach for the time being.
This Nobel peace prize is a down-payment on work yet to be done. It is an act of faith, based on the fact that Obama is making the right noises and seems to know what he is doing; and on the fact that, compared to his predecessor, he already looks like a master-craftsman.
Julian Borger, the Guardian’s diplomatic editor.