An historian of American politics and political institutions at Washington University in St. Louis says that there is a “profound” difference between the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama and ones to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
And it has nothing to do with the fact that President Obama is only eight months into his first term as president and Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson were both near the end of their second terms when they received theirs, says Peter J. Kastor, Ph.D., an associate professor of history and of American culture studies in Arts & Sciences.
“There is a profound difference between how the United States was presenting itself to the world then and now,” says Kastor, who has an expertise in the American presidency.
“At the time Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, both of them were trying to assert a leadership role for the United States on the world stage. They were trying to make the United States validate not only the country’s global power, but the country’s global interventionist pretensions.
“Although Roosevelt and Wilson received the Peace Prize for their roles in ending wars (the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, respectively), they could use the prize as part of their larger argument that the United States — and especially American presidents — had a right to shape the world order.
“Both presidents championed intervening in the domestic affairs of other countries,” says Kastor, whose most recent book, “America’s Struggle with Empire: A Documentary History,” chronicles how the United States has governed foreign territory and foreign peoples.
“President Obama is trying to assert the United States into a different role,” continues Kastor, who teaches a course titled “Americans and Their Presidents,” which examines the intersection of politics and culture as it revolves around the presidency.
“More importantly, he’s operating in a profoundly different international context. The United States is no longer a nation asserting its role on the world stage, but rather it’s a dominant world power now engaged in defending and rethinking its actions in the midst of a global debate about the appropriate role of world powers.
“Like Roosevelt and Wilson, Obama has also stated that the United States can and should be a force for good in world affairs. Unlike Roosevelt and Wilson, however, he has publicly questioned the right of the United States to inject itself into the domestic affairs of foreign countries, even as he is forced to take charge of governing two foreign countries, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He’s trying to say that the U.S. will take the moral higher ground. In some ways, his Peace Prize selection is closer to Jimmy Carter’s in that President Carter was brokering for world diplomacy where no one country can dictate to another.
“Obama is rethinking both globalization and intervention. No one denies that intervention and interceding in other countries is being very hotly debated throughout America. It appears that it is a hot topic among members of the Nobel Prize Committee as well.”