Many observers, in the immediate aftermath of President Barack Obama’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, were quick to snark that the president is again earning high accolades for doing nothing. “Oh look,” they said. “Another premature canonization for the future saint.”

They’re missing the point.

The peace prize, of all the Nobels, is the most prestigious and also the most political. It is delivered as much to recognize accomplishment as to encourage action. This year’s delivery of the prize to Obama is clearly the latter. The president hasn’t done anything specific to earn the prize. But the world likes where he has the United States going and wants it to continue.

This prize was less about Obama than recognition of how America’s stature in the global community suffered during the Bush administration. This award should crystallize for Americans the prism by which we’re judged by the world. Though we look at ourselves as a country of, by and for the people, from outside, “America” is embodied by who is chosen to lead it.

And Obama has — by virtue of his youth, his race, his ideology and his replacing Bush and his foreign policy — earned a ringing endorsement of the global community through an unexpected, although prestigious, Nobel Peace Prize. Whether he deserves it or not is another discussion.

Why it was given to him is what’s interesting, as along with being an endorsement, the prize also signals obligation. Obama is expected to fulfill mighty tasks, like resolving the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and shepherding the United States into a global leadership position on climate change and nuclear non-proliferation.

On the latter, Dr. Ira Helfland, past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, was in Maine recently to advocate for overdue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. His argument was simple: we cannot demand other countries cease testing nuclear weapons, if we won’t pledge to do so ourselves.

It’s matters like these the world believes Obama will set straight, toward restoring America’s prominence and credibility in global affairs. The critics are right: No, the president has not done anything specific to merit a Nobel prize. There were other, more deserving candidates. 

He is, however, getting the world back on America’s side, which is an achievement unto itself. 

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