October 20, 2009

A student reading includes the president's statement on receiving the prize, an excerpt from the Nobel Committee's announcement, and a sampling of reactions to the award. Discussion questions follow.

To the Teacher:

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama evoked surprise and controversy. The student reading below includes the president's statement on receiving the prize, an excerpt from the Norwegian Nobel Committee's announcement, a brief summary of how the award was created, and a sampling of reactions to the award. Discussion questions follow.

Student Reading:

A controversial Nobel Peace Prize

In October 2009, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The award evoked surprise and some controversy.
President Obama's statement upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize
I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee. Let me be clear, I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.
To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize, men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.
But I also know that this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women and all Americans want to build, a world that gives life to the promise of our founding documents.
The Nobel Committee's statement
Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting...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."
Origins of the award
Alfred Nobel, a creator of dynamite and other explosives, died on December 10, 1895. In his will, he requested that much of his wealth be used to establish five prizes, including one for peace. The peace prize was to be awarded to the person who "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding of peace congresses."
Reactions to Obama's award
I cannot think of anyone today more deserving of this honor. In less than a year in office, he has transformed the way we look at ourselves and the world we live in and rekindled hope for a world at peace with itself.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, who received the Nobel peace prize in 2005
The real question Americans are asking is, "What has President Obama actually accomplished?"
Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee
I know there are going to be some people who are saying 'Was it based on good intentions and thoughts, or is it going to be based on results?' But I think the appropriate response is when anybody wins a Nobel Prize, you know that is a very noteworthy development and designation and award, and I think the proper response is to say congratulations.
Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican who is considering a presidential run in 2012 against Obama
Who, Obama? So fast. Too fast-he has hasn't had the time to do anything yet. For the time being, Obama's just making proposals. But sometimes the Nobel committee awards the prize to encourage responsible action. Let's give Obama a chance.
Lech Walesa, president of Poland, 1990-1995, and 1983 Nobel peace prize winner
At the level of intentions, Obama deserves it. He shows a lot of good intentions. But at the level of actions, it is still too early to judge his ability to translate these intentions into realities. And there are indications that he will not be able to proceed forth in this battle. He already failed with [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel] over the issue of freezing the settlements.
Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University 
(This and the four preceding quotes are from the New York Times, 10/10/09)
Barack Obama was given the prize because he is a game-changer. Obama has dedicated himself to reducing and ultimately scrapping the nuclear arsenals that threaten the world... Mr. Obama has generated considerable good will overseas, with polls showing him hugely popular...He has vowed to pursue a world without nuclear weapons; reached out to the Muslim world, delivering a major speech in Cairo in June; and sought to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, at the expense of offending some of his Jewish supporters...[and] Washington is engaging in direct talks with Tehran that have eased tensions."
Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history, University of Michigan,
In addition to the challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the situation in Iraq is extremely fragile; North Korea has tagged missile tests; Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions, though it recently agreed to restart nuclear talks; Israel has resisted a settlement freeze; and Saudi Arabia has refused to make new gestures toward the Israelis.
—Steven Erlanger and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, summarizing challenges facing the president, "Surprise Nobel for Obama Stirs Praise and Doubts," New York Times, 10/10/09
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered? 
2. Why didn't President Obama view the prize "as a recognition of my own accomplishments"? Why, then, did he think he received the prize? 
3. What were the Nobel Committee's reasons for awarding the prize to the president? What example(s) from President Obama's record so far can you cite to support each reason? What examples can you cite that counter each reason? If you need more information, how might you find out?
4. In light of the quote from Albert Nobel's will, did President Obama qualify for the prize? Why or why not?
5. Consider each of the reactions to the prize. What are the main points of agreement? Of disagreement?
6. What are the major challenges that the president faces according to the Times' summary?

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: