This morning President Barack Obama will accept the Nobel Peace Prize, which seems to have been awarded not for anything he's done, but for what he represents to the world, and what the Nobel Committee hopes he will do. I've heard cynics say that the Nobel Committee gave it to President Obama for "not being George W. Bush," and that rings uncomfortably true; if nothing else, this prize feels like a big "welcome back" from the world community, after years of friction.
It's also worth looking at this year's award in the context of other Peace Prizes given to Americans, because the Nobel Committee has often awarded this prize in the apparent hope of influencing American popular opinion. Since the first award in 1901, the Peace Prize has gone to 18 American citizens and one U.S.-based group (The American Friends Service Committee, in 1947). The complete list of recipients is here.
1. Theodore Roosevelt, 1906. The first American to receive the award, and the first incumbent head of state. Famous for the slogan, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," he won the Nobel specifically for the United States' role in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War.
2. Woodrow Wilson, 1919. When the United States entered the Great War, Woodrow Wilson promised it would be "the war to end all wars." He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating what became the Treaty of Versailles, which in hindsight looks like a disaster, and founding the League of Nations, which the U.S. never joined. By the time the award was presented, the U.S. was already dealing with a post-war economic collapse, and strikes and rioting in the major cities. Wilson could not have traveled to accept the award in any case, because he suffered a major stroke in October 1919 (although the extent of his debility was kept secret from the public).
3. Frank B. Kellogg, 1929. Frank B. Kellogg was the U.S. Secretary of State (under President Calvin Coolidge) who negotiated the 1928 Kellogg–Briand Pact, which prohibits the use of war as "an instrument of national policy." Sixty-five nations ultimately signed the treaty, which is still technically in effect. It includes two giant exceptions: the right of a nation to take military action in self-defense, and the right of a nation to take military action for the collective defense of allies. The Kellogg-Briand Pact did, however, serve as one of the bases for the Nuremburg trials, as high German officials were charged with conspiring to commit crimes against peace.
4. Ralph Bunche, 1950. Ralph Bunche (1904-1971) was an African-American diplomat who spent more than 20 years working with the United Nations to promote the rights of people who had not yet achieved self-government. "Democracy is color-blind," he famously said, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as acting UN mediator on Palestine in 1948–1949. The armistice didn't last, but do they ever?
5. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964. I suspect that future historians will see the awards to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama as bookends. Work for social justice never ends, and much remains to be done, but let's all take a minute to think about how far the United States has come, in 45 years. This year's Peace Prize is a recognition of the power of the American ideals — opportunity, self-determination, equality under the law — to overcome centuries of prejudice and structural restrictions. That is something we can all be proud of, regardless of our political views.