(CNN) — President Barack Obama said Friday that he was humbled by the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
“I am both surprised and deeply humbled,” Obama said at the White House.
“I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments. But rather as an affirmation of American leadership. … I will accept this award as a call to action.”
Obama said he did not feel he deserves “to be in the company” of past winners, but would continue to push a broad range of international objectives, including nuclear non-proliferation, a reversal of the global economic downturn, and a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
He acknowledged the ongoing U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, noting that he is the “commander in chief of a country that is responsible for ending” one war and confronting a dangerous adversary in another.
“This award is not simply about my administration,” he said. It “must be shared” with everyone who strives for “justice and dignity.”
The Nobel Committee said it decided to honor Obama for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
The president had not been mentioned as among front-runners for the prize, and the roomful of reporters in Oslo, Norway, gasped when Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel committee, uttered Obama’s name.
The Nobel committee recognized Obama’s efforts to solve complex global problems including working toward a world free 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.
Jagland said the decision was “unanimous” and came with ease.
He rejected the notion that Obama had been recognized prematurely for his efforts and said the committee wanted to promote the president just as it had Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 in his efforts to open up the Soviet Union.
“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,” it said.
Some analysts have speculated that the prize could give Obama additional clout as he forms a strategy for the war in Afghanistan and attempts to engage Iran and North Korea. Another senior administration official told CNN he hopes the White House can “use it for the positive.”
The domestic political consequences are unclear. Supporters hope the prestige associated with the prize will strengthen the president’s hand in the health care reform debate. A top Republican from George W. Bush’s administration, however, argued that “this will backfire on them for a while” and asserted it was “a gift to the right.”
Obama’s recognition comes less than a year after he became the first African-American to win the White House. He is the fourth U.S. president to win the prestigious prize and the third sitting president to do so.
The award comes at a crucial time for Obama, who has initiated peace missions in key parts of the globe.
Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, has returned to the region to advocate for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton starts a six-day trip to Europe and Russia on Friday. On the trip, the secretary will discuss the next steps on Iran and North Korea, and international efforts to have the two countries end their nuclear programs.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who won the 2005 peace prize for his efforts to prevent nuclear energy being used for military means, said Obama deserved to win for his efforts to bring Iran to the table for direct nuclear talks with the United States.
“I could not think of anybody who is more deserving,” said ElBaradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
As the news of Obama’s win broke online, postings on social network sites Twitter and Facebook expressed surprise. Many started with the word: Wow.
The last sitting U.S. president to win the peace prize was Woodrow Wilson in 1919. The other was Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Jimmy Carter had been out of office for more than two decades when he won in 2002.
This year’s Peace Prize nominees included 172 people — among them three Chinese dissidents, an Afghan activist and a controversial Colombian lawmaker — and 33 organizations, the highest number of nominations ever.
The Nobel recipient receives a prize of about $1.4 million.