When you look over the list of Nobel Peace Prize winners, you can mostly divide them into three categories.
First, there are those whose situation in the world could've led them to live ordinary lives under unremarkable circumstances, but found ways to accomplish great things for the betterment of humanity. In this category you have agricultural pioneer Norman Borlaug, father of microlending Mohammed Yunus, the humanitarian heroes of Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International, and Jody Williams of the International Campaign To Ban Land Mines.
Second, there are the peacemakers, who are often honored in pairs, since that's how peace is often made. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat fit into this category for making peace between Israel and Egypt, as do John Hume and David Trimble for reconciling Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk for working towards a post-apartheid South Africa.
Third, there are those who actively participate in politics to oppose regimes destructive of human welfare. Here you have Aung San Suu Kyi who continues to fight against the brutal military dictatorship in Burma, Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, Polish activist and trade unionist Lech Walesa, and anti-apartheid activist Bishop Desmond Tutu.
It's far too early in Barack Obama's presidency to see if he'll deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for the first or second reason. In nine months he hasn't had time to achieve any grand feats or make peace between long-standing enemies. The best way to see him, I think, is as a member of the third category.
America had, for a long time, been the great power that citizens of the world could best rely on to be on the right side of human rights issues. Our record was very far from perfect, and we sometimes fought brutal and foolish wars or supported horrific regimes that did horrific things. But looking at the other nations and empires in the world that have achieved the highest levels of global dominance -- most recently, the USSR, the European colonial powers, and the Axis governments -- America looks pretty good. It may strike you that these are, on the whole, horrific regimes, and being the best among such a lot is no great achievement. There may be some deep indictment of human nature in the fact that great power correlates so well with great viciousness. But as superpowers go, those are your choices. In Singapore, the general opinion I've heard attributed to policymakers is that if somebody else is going to be the big power in the neighborhood, it's better that it be America than China. Now, that's not high praise. But it's a kind of praise that really matters, both as a moral evaluation of America qua hegemon and as a sign that we're a force for good in the world.
The Iraq War, the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and Republican conduct of foreign policy showed the world an America very different from the America they knew. The Bush Administration took many hundreds of billions of dollars that could have been spent on human betterment, and squandered it on a destructive and ultimately pointless war that killed thousands of our citizens and tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The signs that had for so long distinguished us from our enemies -- our humane and dignified treatment of prisoners, even those who had killed Americans -- began to vanish. On issues essential to the well-being of humankind, like nuclear nonproliferation and climate change, progress either ceased or was actively reversed. And at the end of Bush's time as President, financial problems originating within our economy engulfed the world.
The idea that the Bush Administration marked the new direction America in the 21st century, a direction that future Administrations would continue to pursue, rightly struck the citizens of other nations with horror. It matters immensely that the tremendous economic and military power of the United States continue to operate at least as well, on the global scene, as it has over the past decades. I'm not really sure how to morally evaluate a superpower like America as good or bad -- there's an element of context-sensitivity to moral evaluation that I don't know how to apply in the case of gigantic political bodies that have few peers and do tremendous world-changing things. But I know very clearly what it would mean for a superpower to get worse, and to get even worse than that. People of the world were struck by the prospect of America turning into something much worse than it had been before, with terrible consequences for humanity, and they were rightly horrified by that.
Barack Obama hasn't faced the personal brutality that many of the heroes in the third category of Nobel Prize winners have. Nobody threw him in prison, tortured him, or assassinated his staffers. America's democratic traditions kept us from falling into the sort of misrule that typifies, say, the Burmese military dictatorship which Aung San Suu Kyi fights against. But while the SLORC regime in Burma is terrible for the Burmese, the global impact of America being ruled by mad people is far worse than that of Burma being ruled by mad people. The degree of one's impact is in some sense a criterion for the Nobel Prize, and that's what Obama brings to the table over and above so many other candidates. However well or badly he does in fixing the chaos that Bush left behind, the world is happy enough that he won't go around actively creating more chaos as Bush did.
The argument for giving Obama a Nobel Prize is that America is important enough and Republicans are bad enough. As much as the first part will flatter the sensibilities of our political culture, the second will seem totally beyond the pale. Well, so much the worse for our political culture. It's still wide open whether the Obama Administration will make the right decisions on Afghanistan, the Middle East, China policy, and any number of domestic issues. Many of my fellow Democrats will certainly be disappointed by the Obama Administration on any number of issues. But the sheer misrule of the Republican Party was so great that Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize just for his role in bringing it to an end. This will strike many in the elite center of American opinion as a partisan conclusion. If they're not willing to hear it from American Democrats, I hope they're willing to hear it from the rest of the world.
People all around the world see the difference between an America led by Obama, Biden, and the Democrats, and an America led by Bush, Cheney, and the Republicans. You can take this award as one clear and forceful expression of their preferences. I hope Obama does well enough as President to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the first and second categories of winners -- the benefactors and the peacemakers. But he already deserves it for taking executive power out of the hands of a party that was a tremendous enemy of human progress and betterment, through its control of the mightiest nation in the world. The forces in charge of the Republican Party are destructive enough that you can deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting them and winning.