There’s a great exchange between W. Jerome and commenter Benjamin on W. Jerome’s recent post on the buildup of troops in Afghanistan that has coincided with Obama’s Nobel Prize (here is W. Jerome’s first post on the subject). I voted for Obama, and although I haven’t been thrilled with lots of things he’s done as President, I’m still confident that he is better than the alternative. He especially deserves praise for all that he has done to improve US international relations. However, I agree with W. Jerome that it’s odd to award the Nobel Peace prize to a president who has recently doubled troop levels in Afghanistan (especially if the prize is supposed to be a repudiation of Bush’s warmongering) and who presided over two wars that have a combined death count of about 3500 in the last six months. Sure, Obama might deserve the prize more than some previous winners like Yasser Arafat, but if the standards are that low then the prize has lost most of its meaning.
One of this year’s Nobel Laureates in economics is Elinor Ostrom, who before she won the prize was relatively unknown. A cool result of her prize is the explosion of online discussion about her underappreciated but important work. This is relatively uncommon for winners of the economics Nobel. Academic economists tend to be a fairly tight and well-connected group, so if your work is important enough to win a Nobel then it’s likely that most economists are familiar with it (Ostrom is an exception largely because she’s a political scientist and not an economist).
There is no similarly well-connected group of people doing great work that promotes world peace. Therefore, every time people like Obama, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter win the Nobel Prize, it’s a missed opportunity to highlight incredible work that is not publicly understood or appreciated. The Nobel Peace Prize can do a lot more good by raising public consciousness of people like Jody Williams and Muhammad Yunus (even if microcredit is overrated) than it can by making symbolic political gestures to honor people for whom peace is mostly just a talking point.