The news from Vienna suggests that President Obama and Secretary Kerry have achieved a diplomatic coup: the first ever signed agreement between a Constitutional Democratic Republic, the United States, and a terror-supporting theocracy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The negotiators achieved the diplomatic task that they set for themselves, if not quite delivering the terms they promised supporters and skeptics. Setting aside the gap between aspiration and accomplishment, does their achievement serve the cause of world peace? The Nobel Committee provided a useful framework for addressing that question nearly nine years ago.
On October 9, 2009, less than nine months after being sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States, Barak Obama received an unexpected honor. In an official press release from Oslo, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced “that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”
The unexpected nature of the award stemmed from the brevity of President Obama’s tenure on the world stage. As the awardee himself noted in his acceptance speech, “I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who’ve received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight.” Slight indeed. For the first time in the history of the Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee awarded it on the promise of future performance rather than past achievement.
With nearly six years of hindsight then, it is fair to ask a question reminiscent of the late Ed Koch: How’s he doing? How should the Committee feel about its 2009 award?
The answer requires unpacking the award’s rationale. The original press release cited two great areas of promise: diplomacy and nonproliferation. The Obama record in these areas is decidedly mixed.
On the diplomatic front, President Obama has emerged as the world’s foremost practitioner of diplomacy for the sake of diplomacy. His desire for cooperation with Cuba has led him to recognize the Castro dictatorship and open an American embassy in Havana without receiving anything in return for the United States, the many Cuban exiles living in the U.S., or the long-suffering people of Cuba.
His desire for cooperation with Iran has led him to abandon our traditional regional allies, accede to the Iranian nuclear program, wink at Iran’s growing regional hegemony, and extract no meaningful concessions. In his demonstrated elevation of diplomacy far above traditional parochial concerns like national interest or human rights, President Obama knows few rivals. On the first of its hopes and expectations then, the Nobel Committee appears to have made a sound call.
The problem arises around the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, or in a word, nonproliferation. The goal of nuclear nonproliferation has been a matter of bipartisan consensus, not only in the United States but throughout the developed world. Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan all negotiated nuclear arms reduction treaties with the Soviet Union. President Clinton committed the United States to ensuring the territorial integrity of the Ukraine in return for that nation’s relinquishment of its nuclear arsenal. Argentina, South Africa, and Libya all earned global accolades upon ending their nuclear programs, while India and Pakistan earned global approbation for bringing theirs to fruition. And the Nobel Committee itself has elevated nuclear nonproliferation to a signature cause: in the years since the development of nuclear weapons, the committee has awarded no fewer than eight peace prizes for work to reduce the global nuclear threat.
Yet President Obama’s legacy will almost certainly include the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East. Even the White House concedes that Iran will likely become a nuclear state in a bit more than a decade — assuming that it does not cheat on the agreement currently being negotiated to get there sooner. Saudi Arabia has announced that such an agreement will motivate it to acquire its own nuclear weapon from Pakistan at its earliest convenience. Numerous analysts predict that Egypt and Turkey will likely soon follow suit.
Rogue states around the world will learn an important lesson: Qaddafi, who gave up his nuclear program, was punished, bombed, deposed, and executed. Khameini, who stuck to his guns, was rewarded with international legitimacy. And of course, once the world’s worst states possess nuclear weapons, their transmittal to non-state actors is just a matter of time. From the perspective of a world without nuclear weapons then, the Nobel Committee’s trust in President Obama appears to have been badly misplaced.
Taken together, the Obama record — particularly when viewed in light of his Nobel Prize — is instructive. He has indeed excelled at precisely the sort of diplomacy that the Nobel Committee likes to reward: concessions from developed countries committed to human rights and the rule of law to rogue movements or nations spouting revolutionary ideology and committing brutal acts against their own people and their neighbors. In so doing, he has ended a decades-long consensus on the importance of nuclear nonproliferation.
We leave it to the Nobel Committee to determine whether they believe that such a tradeoff serves the cause of world peace. From our perspective, the diplomatic approach that won the Cold War, peace through strength, is far superior to the one that is currently losing the war to Islamism, peace through capitulation.