Much of international conflict today is dominated by a clash of symbols. When Iran's discredited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatens to hang three of the many protesters against his rigged election, he is striking at a symbol of popular discontent. When insurgents invade the hardest target in Pakistan — the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi — they are displaying a symbol of their strength.
And when President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it was not because he had accomplished much for peace in his short tenure. It was because he came to symbolize for the Norwegian award committee a vision of a better world.
True, he did not have much concrete to show for his vision. But neither did Jimmy Carter, honored for his "untiring efforts" to achieve worldwide peace. Nor had Vice President Al Gore achieved much beyond symbolism on the global warming front. He was honored for his efforts to alert the world about climate change.
It did not do much for Obama's symbolic image that he chose not to meet with the Dalai Lama, symbol of the Chinese persecution of Tibetans.
President Obama has shown himself to be a master in the manipulation of symbols. He has made powerful and sometimes inspiring speeches on American values and international comity and responsibility.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to world peace so far was presiding over a summit meeting of the United Nations Security Council that charted a path to a world with zero nuclear weapons. But that, too, was a symbolic event. The nuclear stockpiles show no signs of being diminished.
The Nobel Committee said it was honoring Obama for an "extraordinary effort to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Some Americans have not been willing to accept symbolism for accomplishment. But much of what passes for accomplishment in this world is symbolic.