Why Obama? Deconstructing the Nobel Peace Prize nomination

The choice of the US President completes the counter-Bush trilogy: Carter, Gore and now Obama

So it came out of the blue did it? Not likely. This was the last in a series of three presidential choices whose logic now reveals itself to be clear: from former President Jimmy Carter in 2002, to would-be President Al Gore in 2007 (joint with the IPCC), and now recently-elected President Barack Obama in 2009, a remarkable run of US politicians as Nobel Peace Laureates comes to an end, neatly bracketing - and standing as pointed rejoinder to - the Bush years.

Anyone saying the Peace Prize Committee does not have a political agenda needs to consider the timing and nature of these choices more carefully.

The guiding thread of all three decisions has been the issue of human security, not peace as such. Carter got his partly for the promotion of peace, but also for promoting "economic and social development". Gore got his for "reduc[ing] the threat to the security of mankind" (this as Bush was settling down to war in Afghanistan). And now Obama has his for - spot the allusion to Bush - promoting the idea that "those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population." No phony Texan accent there.

One could take this little dissection of the Peace Prize Committee's sub-textual attack on Bush further, however. The second paragraph of Obama's current citation actually links his award back to Gore's: Obama has created "A new climate in international politics", it says, just as Gore created a new international politics about the climate before him. It is as if Bush never happened.

But Bush did happen, and the conclusion that each of Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and now Barack Obama have been awarded this Prize for looking like a US President ought to look in counterpoint to Bush seems inescapable. "The Committee has attached special importance to Obama's vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons," it says about this year's decision. Don't be sidetracked by the presence of nuclear weapons here. The real point is in the word 'vision': indeed, that was all the Committee can have had to go on at first, the deadline for this year's nominations falling just two weeks after Obama's inauguration.

So, beauty pageant participants around the world take hope. But if the choice of Obama completes the counter-Bush trilogy, there is an important difference between the basis for Gore's nomination in 2007 and Obama's today.

If Gore got the prize because he showed that even politicians can take heed of what science, the public and common sense all tell us about something as important as climate change, Obama's getting the prize, states almost the opposite: it asserts an extraordinary faith, a belief even, in the powers of politicians to lead and to thereby solve the ills of the world.

This is indeed a measure of the sea change in popular hopes for politics and for politicians (elsewhere in the world at least: the last few weeks of party conferences in the UK having dulled that sense over here somewhat).

But it is also worth bearing in mind the particular worldview of the Peace Prize Committee itself. The Peace Prize Committee is the only part of the Nobel bureaucracy (which includes the prize for literature and the four prizes for the sciences) to be based in Norway not Sweden. Alfred Nobel himself was a Swede, of course, and Norway was long colonized by Sweden - gaining independence in 1905. Built in to the Prize is thus a strong desire to promote the work of those who deal in alternative, more emancipated futures.

The art of turning making such alternative futures a reality is a distinctly Scandinavian one. It is in fact this very sentiment that lay behind a comment by Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg this week. On hearing that Norway had once again been ranked first in the UNDP Human Development Index, Stoltenberg responded not with loud celebration, but by soberly pointing out that such league tables are based on highly problematic indicators (he was quite right about that). If Norway's position signaled anything, he said, it signaled Norway's obligation as a nation to help other nations lower down the table.

That is the sort of politics the Peace Committee shares. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason that this year's Nobel Peace Prize goes to the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. The question remains though: is that the legacy the rest of us will see when we look back on Barack Obama's presidency. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee clearly believes that it is. We can only hope they are right.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.