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To Europe, Obama's Nobel is less surprising

President Obama's conciliatory approach to world affairs reflects the continent's idea of what America should be: For Europeans, what matters most that he is not George W. Bush.

October 10, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman

CAIRO — The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama may have stunned Americans. But in Europe, where the winner is chosen and people prefer superpowers to seek consensus, it is far less surprising that such an honor would be bestowed on a U.S. president who speaks of global cooperation.

To European eyes, it matters most that Obama is not former President George W. Bush.

The Bush years were scarring for Europe, a time when the continent felt that the United States was betraying its moral standing by going to war in Iraq, torturing terrorism suspects and engaging in other policies Europeans found discordant with the America it thought it knew.

In the decades since World War II, the continent often disagreed with Washington on issues, notably the Vietnam War, but the Bush administration offended Europe with its unilateralism and swagger.

Although he is new to world affairs with only a light record of accomplishment, Obama represents Europe's vision of what America should be. He comes across as conciliatory, open to dialogue and committed to engaging not only Europe, but the far and troubled reaches of world.

Many American conservatives disparage this as weakness. But in Oslo, where the Nobel committee of Norwegian politicians -- four women and a man -- selected Obama, these are the qualities that have been too long missing in the White House.

The committee members "are 'right-thinking' Scandinavians who exemplify liberal internationalist traditions," said Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who was a guest research fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in 1993. "My gut instinct is that if they could have given the Nobel Prize to the American people for electing somebody other than George W. Bush, they would've done so."

The committee did, in fact, deliver a snub to Bush during his presidency by twice awarding the peace prize to prominent Democrats: President Carter for his humanitarian work in 2002 and Al Gore for raising awareness of climate change in 2007. But the committee's citing of Obama delivers an even more blatant political message about what Europeans seek in an American president.

"This is a palpable sigh of relief on the side of some Norwegian liberal internationalist politicians," Patrick says. "There is a sense of regarding themselves as stewards of the conscience of the international community. I think they take that seriously.

"Whether we should take that seriously is another matter. It's a somewhat Olympian view."

The mythology of Mt. Olympus -- of gods anointing mortals -- comes to mind in the committee's citation for Obama's peace prize.

"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," the committee said. "His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

That's exactly what Europeans like: a superpower that listens. Part of it is selfish. Such a philosophy raises the clout and diplomatic relevance of London, Paris and Berlin, to say nothing of Oslo. And Europe, which has deep problems with racial and ethnic discrimination, sees in Obama the embodiment of equality that can create a new international climate.

If Obama fails, they believe, it will be at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield.

The polling numbers in Europe embracing Obama's style over Bush's are startling.

A survey done in May and June by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 86% of Britons believed Obama would "do the right thing in world affairs." That compares with a similar survey done in 2008, when 16% said Bush would do the right thing. In Germany, the numbers were 93% for Obama and 14% for Bush; in France, 91% and 13%.

The Nobel committee quickly seized on what it saw as an encouraging turn of America back toward itself, at a moment when crises stretch from Kabul to Tehran to a divided Jerusalem.

Obama's prize is not for accomplishment. It is a reaffirmation, smug perhaps, maybe even wistful, that to European eyes the United States has righted itself, that it is once again thinking and acting like it should.

It is, after all, Norway that hands out the prize.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Fleishman was The Times' Berlin Bureau chief from 2002 to '07. Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.

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