When Norway awarded Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, just weeks into his presidency, it was seen not as a mark of his achievements, but as yet another symbol of the impossibly high expectations he had set for his tenure. Now, a senior Norwegian diplomat has revealed that, far from feeling honoured by the award, the White House was furious.
Morten Wetland, the former Norwegian ambassador to the UN, claimed in an article for the business paper Dagens Næringsliv this week that, when the Prize was announced, Mr Obama’s then-chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel confronted and “dressed down” the country’s ambassador to the US, Wegger Strömmen. Mr Emanuel reportedly accused Mr Strömmen and Norway of “fawning” over the freshly elected Mr Obama.
Mr Wetland, now a partner in an Oslo lobbying firm, wrote: “My most embarrassing day in the United Nations over the years I was the Norwegian ambassador there was the day the award to US President Barack Obama was announced. My colleague in Washington received an overhaul from Obama’s chief of staff.”
The White House may have believed that the prize was little more than a ploy to lure the popular new President to Norway, Mr Wetland told the country’s English language news service The Local. “My guess is that the President’s staff want to be in control and not to be forced into a position that they have not been seeking themselves,” he said. “It could have been perceived that someone was consciously or subconsciously thinking about the prospect of having Obama visit Norway. Obama wouldn’t have visited Norway if it hadn’t have been for the Peace Prize.”
The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year by the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee, who are appointed by the country’s parliament. Though the committee is officially independent of the Norwegian government, it is nevertheless made up of former MPs. The current chair of the committee is former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjørn Jagland. Mr Jagland, who is expected to be replaced this year, led the committee in 2009 and in 2012, when it was criticised for awarding the Peace Prize to the European Union.
President Obama had been in office for less than a fortnight when the deadline for nominations for the 2009 Prize passed, but the panel praised the new US leader for the promises he had made during his election campaign: to fight climate change, to support international diplomacy, and to begin to rid the world of nuclear weapons. “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 in its citation.
Mr Obama was shocked when informed of the Prize by the Norwegian Nobel Institute. “To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honoured by this prize,” he said at the time.
Mr Emanuel is now the Mayor of Chicago, but it was in Washington DC that he earned the nickname “Rahmbo” for his combative approach to politics. Early in his career he famously sent a large dead fish to a pollster who had displeased him. He demonstrated his flair for international diplomacy as an aide to Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal: when British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Washington on an official visit and was preparing to appear alongside Mr Clinton at a press conference, Mr Emanuel is said to have offered him the immortal words of advice: “This is important. Don’t f*** it up.”
Mr Wetland declined to disclose exactly how he found out about Mr Emanuel’s encounter with Mr Strömmen.