The decision to name Barack Obama as the 2009 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize surprised many. Of course, he had been a plausible candidate, but most experts believed it was too early in his term for US president to be given such a high honor -- after all, he only entered into office two weeks before the end of the Feb. 1 nomination deadline. On Friday, though, the Nobel Committee in Oslo announced its intent to award Obama the prize.
The committee cited the president's "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" as the reason for the pick.
"Only 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 in a statement. "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." The committee also noted that Obama's vision of a world freed from nuclear weapons had played a special role in his selection.
Officials in Washington were left speechless by the news, with White House spokesman Robert Gibbs stating in an e-mail to CBS News simply, "wow." Another spokesman told news agency Reuters the president felt "honored."
In Europe, officials also acted with surprise -- and statements from leaders came much later than would usually be expected.
"I'd like to send my warmest congratulations to President Barack Obama for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "In a very short time, he has succeeded in shifting the tone worldwide towards dialogue. I believe we should all support him to make world peace more possible. There is still much left to do, but a window of possibility has been opened. His call for a world free of nuclear weapons is a goal we all should try to make reality in the coming years. Another warm congratulations for this grand award. Certainly it will encourage the American president, but also us all to help him."
Speaking in Brussels, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso congratulated President Obama on Friday. "The award of the prize to President Obama, leader of the most significant military power in the world, at the beginning of his mandate, is a reflection of the hopes he has raised globally with his vision of a world without nuclear weapons," he said. Barroso added that "it is also a recognition of the expectations created everywhere by President Obama's determination to work closely with the United State's partners to shape global responses to the global challenges we face today."
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi "applauded" the US president for winning the award, and said that his cabinet broke into applause when they received news of the win. He added that the award would help Obama "maintain a ecumenical approach towards everyone."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also congratulated Obama by sending a private congratulatory message to the US president on Friday.
Addressing concerns that the Oslo-based prize was being given to the US president too early in his term, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg indicated that the prize also looks ahead to the future. "The exciting and important thing about this prize is that it's given to someone ... who has the power to contribute to peace," he said.
Outgoing UN International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, who himself received the prize in 2005, said: "I cannot think of anyone today more deserving of this honor. In less than a year in office, he has transformed the way we look at ourselves and the world we live in and rekindled hope for a world at peace with itself."
In Poland, anti-communist leader Lech Walesa said it was too early to give Obama the prize. "Who, Obama? So fast? Too fast -- he hasn't had the time to do anything yet. For the time being Obama's just making proposals. But sometimes the Nobel Committee awards the prize to encourage responsible action."
Guido Westerwelle, head of the business-friendly Free Democrats and the man likely to become Germany's next foreign minister in a government coalition with Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, also released a statement with kudos for Obama. "The Free Democrats congratulate Barack Obama on getting the Nobel Peace Prize," he said. "This peace prize is less to honor what he has already accomplished but rather offers backing to a political approach which favors cooperation to confrontation and disarmament to armament. This guideline does not just apply to Washington. Working together and building up confidence are also in the best tradition of German politics. The awarding of this peace prize is an incentive to turn Barack Obama's willingness to compromise into a reality. Barack Obama has stretched out his hand and it should be taken by all those who have, unfortunately, yet to show a willingness to use this window of opportunity."
Representatives of other German political parties also gave their endorsement.
Current German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) said he was "pleased" with the choice. "The decision by the Nobel Committee is an important signal of support for the American president's cooperative policies," he said. "President Obama didn't just start pushing doggedly for solutions to international problems and crises at the start of his term. I am convinced: His courageous policy of the outstretched hand is the right way to break through the hardened fronts in many conflicts and to promote peaceful cooperation between peoples."
Green Party parliamentary heads Renate Künast and Jürgen Trittin said the "prize signals a new start. The decision is an order to full-heartedly continue with this change of strategy."
Meanwhile, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit of the SPD, who hosted Obama during his famous visit to the German capital during the presidential campaign in July 2008, sees the award as an "obligation to take a political approach that is tolerant and open. Only in this way will we win lasting peace." He also recalled Obama's "unforgettable speech" at the city's landmark Victory Column.