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.

Simon Reid-Henry is Associate Professor in Geography at Queen Mary, University of London and the author of the forthcoming Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West Since the Cold War, 1971-2017.