US President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, citing his outreach to the Muslim world and attempts to curb nuclear proliferation.
The first African American to hold the country's highest office, Obama has called for disarmament and worked to restart the stalled Middle East peace process since taking office in January.
The stunning choice made Obama the third sitting US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize and shocked Nobel observers because Obama took office less than two weeks before the February 1 nomination deadline. Obama's name had been mentioned in speculation before the award but many Nobel watchers believed it was too early to award the president.
"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. "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."
Committee chairman announces winner (Photo: AFP)
The committee said it attached special importance to Obama's vision of, and work for, a world without nuclear weapons.
"Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play," the committee said.
In a speech in Prague in April, Obama declared, "So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." But he was not the first American president to set that goal, and acknowledged it might not be reached in his lifetime.
On other pressing issues, he is still searching for breakthroughs on Iran's disputed nuclear program and on the stalled Middle East peace process. Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said on Thursday there was no chance of a peace deal for many years.
Obama 'humbled to be selected'
The Nobel Committee's chairman, Thorbjoern Jagland, said Obama did not get the customary phone call to tell him he had won this year's Peace Prize.
"To wake up a president in the middle of the night is not something you should do," Jagland told reporters. Usually, the laureate is telephoned from Oslo an hour or so before the announcement at 0900 GMT (5 am Washington time).
Jagland said the five-member committee also feared that the name of the winner would leak out before it was officially announced in Oslo, as has sometimes happened in the past.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called before dawn and woke Obama with the news that he had won the prestigious honor. "The president was humbled to be selected by the committee," the official said.
When told in an e-mail from Reuters that many people around the world were stunned by the announcement, Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, responded, "As are we."
Obama is the third senior US Democrat to win the prize this decade after former Vice President Al Gore won in 2007 along with the UN climate panel and Jimmy Carter in 2002.
The Nobel committee received a record 205 nominations for this year's prize. The prize worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.4 million) will be handed over in Oslo on December 10.
In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the peace prize should go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses."
Unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which are awarded by Swedish institutions, he said the peace prize should be given out by a five-member committee elected by the Norwegian Parliament. Sweden and Norway were united under the same crown at the time of Nobel's death.
The committee has taken a wide interpretation of Nobel's guidelines, expanding the prize beyond peace mediation to include efforts to combat poverty, disease and climate change.
Reuters contributed to this report