OSLO (AP) — President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in a stunning decision designed to encourage his initiatives to reduce nuclear arms, ease tensions with the Muslim world and stress diplomacy and cooperation rather than unilateralism.
Many observers were shocked by the unexpected choice so early in the Obama presidency, which began less than two weeks before the Feb. 1 nomination deadline and has yet to yield concrete achievements in peacemaking.
Some around the world objected to the choice of Obama, who still oversees wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has launched deadly counter-terror strikes in Pakistan and Somalia.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee countered that it was trying "to promote what he stands for and the positive processes that have started now." It lauded the change in global mood wrought by Obama's calls for peace and cooperation, and praised his pledges to reduce the world stock of nuclear arms, ease American conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthen the U.S. role in combating climate change.
The peace prize was created partly to encourage ongoing peace efforts but Obama's efforts are at far earlier stages than past winners'. The Nobel committee acknowledged that they may not bear fruit at all.
"He got the prize because he has been able to change the international climate," Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said. "Some people say, and I understand it, isn't it premature? Too early? Well, I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond — all of us."
The selection to some extent reflects a trans-Atlantic divergence on Obama. In Europe and much of the world he is lionized for bringing the United States closer to mainstream global thinking on issues like climate change and multilateralism. At home, the picture is more complicated. As president, Obama is often criticized as he attempts to carry out his agenda — drawing fire over a host of issues from government spending to health care to the conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
U.S. Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele contended that Obama won the prize as a result of his "star power" rather than meaningful accomplishments.
"The real question Americans are asking is, What has President Obama actually accomplished?" Steele said.
Obama's election and foreign policy moves caused a dramatic improvement in the image of the U.S. around the world. A 25-nation poll of 27,000 people released in July by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found double-digit boosts to the percentage of people viewing the U.S. favorably in countries around the world. That indicator had plunged across the world under President George W. Bush.
"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," Jagland said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made no secret of his admiration for Obama, called the decision the embodiment of the "return of America into the hearts of the people of the world."
But Obama's work is far from done, on numerous fronts.
He said he would end the Iraq war but has been slow to bring the troops home and the real end of the U.S. military presence there won't come until at least 2012.
He's running a second war in the Muslim world, in Afghanistan — and is seriously considering ramping up the number of U.S. troops on the ground and asking for help from others, too.
"I don't think Obama deserves this. I don't know who's making all these decisions. The prize should go to someone who has done something for peace and humanity," said Ahmad Shabir, 18-year-old student in Kabul. "Since he is the president, I don't see any change in U.S. strategy in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Obama has said that battling climate change is a priority. But the U.S. seems likely to head into crucial international negotiations set for Copenhagen in December with Obama-backed legislation still stalled in Congress.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa, who won the prize in 1983, questioned whether Obama deserved it now.
"So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far. He is still at an early stage. He is only beginning to act," Walesa said.
"This is probably an encouragement for him to act. Let's see if he perseveres. Let's give him time to act," Walesa said.
Last year's prize winner, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, saw the award as vindication that Obama "is ready to seriously seek a solution to the question of Israel and Palestine," he told Finnish broadcaster YLE.
"Of course, this puts pressure on Obama. The world expects that he will also achieve something," Ahtisaari said.
Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which are awarded by Swedish institutions, the peace prize is given out by a five-member committee elected by the Norwegian Parliament. Like the Parliament, the committee has a leftist slant, with three members elected by left-of-center parties. Jagland said the decision to honor Obama was unanimous.
The award appeared to be at least partly a slap at Bush from a committee that harshly criticized Obama's predecessor for his largely unilateral military action in the wake of the Sept.
Read the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize citation