To Oslo For Peace

Sep 122009

The transformation of sleepy Oslo to fortified Nobel host city was tangible. There was anxiety on the sidewalks as citizens walked carefully by concrete barricades, policemen with machine guns and bomb-sniffing dogs—all in place for the arriving VIPs. Even manhole covers were welded shut as a security measure—the official sign that a U.S. president is or has been to a city.

The anxiousness on the streets was a mixture of excitement and curiosity for residents and guests alike. On one hand, stars were descending on Oslo—Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, country-singer Toby Keith, Wyclef Jean, and the soon-to-be Nobel Laureate Barack Obama. But with the pomp came curious circumstances around President Obama’s award. Many observers asked what he had done to deserve such a prize for peace, and how the Nobel jury could have been so overwhelmingly wooed by a man who had campaigned longer than he had governed.

Anthony Ganzer (2008)

Before I arrived in Oslo, my colleagues at Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) asked me to explain why Mr. Obama was nominated. I was stationed there as a guest journalist through a Robert Bosch Stiftung fellowship, and had been anointed as expert of all things American. "I don’t know why he would win such a thing," I said perplexed. "I don’t think he has done much, but I will see what the U.S. press is saying." I thought it was a joke, at first—my colleagues had seen one-too-many episodes of Punk'd and wanted to gauge my reaction, but that was not the case.

In scouring personal and professional sources, I quickly realized my confusion about the award was shared by others. The Nobel committee had noted Mr. Obama’s efforts on climate change, nuclear proliferation and diplomacy as reasons for their decision. But pundits and papers criticized the Norwegians for cheapening the award, and passing over candidates much more worthy of the prize. My WDR colleagues pressed me further for answers, and I knew Mr. Obama would have to address the controversy directly in his speech. I offered to provide live analysis from Oslo, following the acceptance ceremony. I wanted to be there and experience the President’s answer myself.

This Nobel ceremony was met with American cynicism and European intrigue alike. Some journalists took the event as another page in Mr. Obama’s evolving public image and mystique. People dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Obama with over-sized heads descended on the press room, lending an air of unreality to the prize. But this was not a campaign rally, and a sitting war-time U.S. president was about to offer context to his undesired, and arguably undeserved, Nobel Peace Prize.

The President’s acceptance speech was a difficult one, which tried to reconcile an award for peace given in a time of struggle and war for much of the Western world. Following the ceremony my colleagues at WDR interviewed me, and I spoke to the American perspective of the President’s award. I tried to explain that the President had to be careful in accepting the Peace Prize—he had to be honest in explaining wants and realities, and that Americans are waiting to see how Mr. Obama’s policies and visions pan out.

Norwegians, and arguably most Europeans, had split reactions. On one hand they were eager and proud to bestow their prestigious prize, and share their fresh and welcoming landscapes, with what they thought was a hopeful enigma. But Mr. Obama could not swoop in and cherish the prize for a job well-done. He played down the award—cancelling many traditional events and doing only the minimum. There was no talk of hope and change. There was no "Yes We Can."

On that day there was just an American president, fighting two wars, trying to manage a financial crisis, while furthering a challenging domestic agenda. Mr. Obama was raw and honest in his acceptance of the prize, as the realities of a complicated world sat heavily on his shoulders. And perhaps most surprising of all, he used his speech to justify the use of force in the pursuit of peace.

President Barack Obama receives the Nobel Peace Prize

"Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens, and the strength of our arms," Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama tried to deny the fanfare, while still representing his ideals and his role as Commander in Chief, and without embarrassing his hosts. This speech was probably not what the Norwegian royals and Nobel jury members expected, but it was the only way to accept the award. And with that dose of honesty and reality, the peace prize festivities and Mr. Obama’s 26-hours in Oslo quickly came to a close, while new challenges in Washington beckoned.

Tony Ganzer is currently living in Munich where he works for Westdeutscher Rundfunk as a Robert Bosch Fellow. Previously he worked for NPR affiliate KJZZ 91.5 FM in Phoenix, Arizona, and the Northwest News Network. He has freelanced for numerous news outlets including the BBC, NPR, Public Radio International, Deutsche Welle and others.