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Wake-up call for world peace

Mark Mardell | 14:06 UK time, Friday, 9 October 2009

The president's press secretary woke Mr Obama at six o' clock in the morning eastern time to tell him that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. I don't yet know the president's immediate reaction but the official one is that he is "humbled". Apparently when a senior TV correspondent broke the news to a couple of very senior aides even earlier, they thought it was a wind-up.

Although the prize can be awarded to obscure if worthy figures or organisations there has certainly been a scattering of stellar names. The first well known figure to get it was also a president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, for negotiating a peace treaty between Russia and Japan. Since then, Woodrow Wilson, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela have all won the award.

Most of them had achieved some tangible triumphs before the award was made but this time the committee has made it an aspirational, although of course not conditional, award. They've given it to him for fostering multilateral relationships and particularly for his vision of a nuclear-free world which, diplomats tell me, is a real and very personal obsession. The citation also says:

"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept 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."

The only two British winners I can spot are Austen (not Neville) Chamberlain and Arthur Henderson. Mr Obama might want to reflect on their triumphs. The treaty of Locarno in 1925 negotiated by the former was an early example of appeasement towards Germany. The latter won it in 1934 for overseeing the world disarmament conference, which wasn't a huge success in light of subsequent events.

But I am in danger of being captured by Washington cynicism and the narrative of the president's enemies, who see any sign of what Americans call "reaching out" as weakness and failure.

I expect a day of sneering reaction from the conservative media here. But in much of the rest of the world, Obama really is seen as a beacon of hope for a better future, a symbol of a more grown-up America. There was already a huge weight of responsibility on his shoulders, and this medal hung round his neck has just made it a little heavier.


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