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Obama's moral compass: a year after his Nobel Peace Prize

As human rights organizations celebrate this year's Nobel Peace Price winner Liu Xiaobo, Obama is struggling to close the gap between idealistic expectations and political pragmatism a year after his Nobel speech.

Close-up of Obama, thoughtful

On the anniversary of his Nobel speech, Obama's vision remains what it was: a vision

On December 10, 2009, President Barack Obama delivered his Nobel speech in the city hall of Oslo, Norway. He spoke of men and women "far more deserving of the prize" than him - and he meant people like Liu Xiaobo.

Imprisoned in China, Liu received this year's Nobel Peace Prize after more than two decades of an arduous, non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.

Obama, on the other hand, received the award for a vision, a change in tone in international relations, and, many argue, in an attempt to settle accounts with his predecessor, George W. Bush.

A dissatisfying record

starting nuclear rocket creating a lot of exhaust fumes

Obama's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons impressed not only the Nobel Committee

While Obama has kept his promise of withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, he hasn't followed through on many of the political projects he received the Nobel Peace Prize for: a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, the closing of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and a real step forward in meeting the world's climate challenges.

But who's to blame? Did Obama lose the moral compass he assigned so much importance to in his Nobel speech?

Facing an adverse political climate

"Obama's standpoints are better than his record," Marco Fey from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt told Deutsche Welle. "On a variety of issues, he's caught in the political climate in the US."

Fey cited the arms reduction treaty 'New START' as a fitting example. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the treaty in April 2010, but it hasn't been ratified by the Senate so far.

"Obama, senior department of state officials, they all support the treaty," Fey said. "It would be a real milestone in terms of arms control. But Republicans use the most absurd arguments to block it in the Senate."

barrier and barb wire at Guantanamo Bay detention camp during sunset

The closure of Guantanamo Bay detention camp remains uncertain

Political capital is scarce

Obama's decision to close down the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay has met fierce Congressional opposition as well. But critics argue that Obama hasn't really invested his political capital in the measure compared to other projects he pushed through Congress - such as health care reform.

The recent conviction of Canadian citizen Omar Ahmed Khadr who was brought to Guantanamo's military prison at the age of 16, exemplifies Obama's lack of self-assertion in putting an end to the facility and its practice.

"Who would have thought that, under Obama, someone who's accused of a crime committed at the age of 15 would be tried before a military commission at Guantanamo?" Reed Brody from Human Rights Watch told Deutsche Welle.

Promoting human rights

close-up of Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo is this year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize

Indeed, Obama promised to be a persistent advocate of human rights at home and abroad. He has frequently underscored the significance of peaceful activists like Liu Xiaobo - the first Chinese recipient of the award.

Liu was an influential participant of the Tiananmen protests in 1989 and is a leading author of Charta 08, a manifesto promoting fundamental human rights and democratization in China.

In December 2009, after a series of earlier internments, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power."

Obama and other heads of state have called on the Chinese government to release Liu. However, critics argue that Obama has failed to make human rights a guiding principle of US relations with other countries - highlighted and, some say, undermined by Obama's recent efforts to expand Chinese-American cooperation.

"It's not helpful when the government repeatedly describes human rights and democracy as issues on which the US and China will inevitably disagree," Brody said.

A vision's prospects

Aerial view of Al Gore's Nobel Lecture at Oslo's city hall

In 2007, Al Gore gave his Nobel speech at Oslo's city hall

Whether attributed to Obama's political environment or his setting of priorities, the gap between Obama's vision and his actual achievements remains a fact.

Yet, Obama is sticking to his optimistic rhetoric and continues to set visionary goals, for example, regarding the Middle East peace process. "He's set the goal of reaching a peace accord within a year," said Fey. "That's a very ambitious undertaking."

As the clash of idealistic expectations and political pragmatism continues to haunt Obama's presidency, one is reminded of what Al Gore said during his Nobel speech in 2007: "We have everything we need to get started, save perhaps political will, but political will is a renewable resource."

Author: David Schnicke
Editor: Rob Mudge

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