A young politician, not yet fully tested, makes important and history-altering moves on the international stage - moves whose long-term outcomes remain uncertain - and is surprised to find himself with a Nobel Peace Prize.
That describes Lester B. Pearson in 1957. It describes Barack Obama in 2009.
Mr. Pearson's role in creating a United Nations peacekeeping force to resolve the first Middle East conflict won him the award six years before he was prime minister. It didn't change attitudes among Arabs or Israelis, but the Norwegian judges felt it was a symbolically important action that had a good chance of creating lasting peace in the Middle East.
Mr. Obama's leadership in uniting all the world's powers around total nuclear disarmament, his ending the impasse between Russia and the West and his goal-driven engagement with Iran and the wider Muslim world have not yet borne fruit, but the Norwegian judges believe the nature of the world has been significantly altered for the better.
The Nobel Peace Prize is not a lifetime-achievement award. It tends to honour actions that change the way the world functions, the way countries engage or publics think about a conflict. They should be important, historic actions, but the prize does not wait for results.
Mr. Obama falls squarely into this tradition: He has changed the game. International relations no longer function the way they have for the past decade, and important new possibilities are now open. On the issues that matter - a nuclear-free world, an end to dangerous rogue states - the path is no longer blocked, and all the world's major powers act and vote together.
The words "Obama agenda" make many of us think of a bogged-down and increasingly horrific conflict in Afghanistan, an unrelenting standoff between Israel and Arabs half a century after Mr. Pearson got involved, and a Guantanamo Bay prison that determinedly stays open.
These are significant issues, and they hang pointedly over Mr. Obama's young administration. They happen to be the geographically limited but symbolically loaded conflicts that obsess North Americans.
The Nobel Peace Prize is a European prize. The world outside North America sees Afghanistan, Israel and the embers of the Iraq conflict amid a far wider array of threats and worries. There are larger issues at stake. Some of them involve the fate of the world.
Mr. Obama's decision to cancel the U.S. missile-defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and thus to end a simmering conflict with Russia and make nuclear disarmament possible, was an enormous development to Europeans.
His leadership of a UN Security Council summit that called for total nuclear disarmament - unanimously, for the first time - and launched a strengthened nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, just before sitting down with Iran, was probably the headline of the year outside North America.
His Cairo speech opening dialogue with the Middle East and putting international relations back on political and economic terms - ending the "clash of civilizations" and "axis of evil" confrontation of previous years - was received as a historic epiphany in much of the world.
His talks with Iran, with Russia's and Europe's help, and his recognition that Iran is a long-term problem rather than an immediate threat, have signalled a new recognition that change can be made to happen, as it was in 1989, by playing a long game built on shared values. That, for the rest of the world, was a big deal.
It could be dismissed as mere talk. But it is precisely the sort of initiative that has defined the Nobel Peace Prize, and that has led it to honour, with a few embarrassing exceptions, the great developments of our age.
When West German Chancellor Willy Brandt won it in 1971, his policy of "ostpolitik" - engaging and aiding the communist east, rather than confronting and isolating it - seemed pointless and foolhardy to many. It was not yet evident that it would make the events of 1989 into velvet revolutions rather than violent ones.
Lech Walesa won it in 1983. At that point he was a union leader whose confrontations with communism seemed quixotic and tragic. It was not at all clear that they would precipitate the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Mikhail Gorbachev won it in 1990, for his efforts on nuclear disarmament, including his negotiation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and for replacing international confrontation with negotiations.
At that, he was a leader who had escalated and then lost a bloody Afghanistan war he had inherited, whose country was the world's leading arms dealer, and who had made reforms designed to keep communism intact. It wasn't clear then that they would bring about the end of the Soviet Union.
Half a dozen people and organizations have won the Peace Prize for initiatives that have helped the cause of nuclear disarmament without actually reducing arms counts.
The Nobel Peace Prize is also a political prize. Its judges are not neutral, scientific arbiters of accomplishment; they are instructed to encourage international co-operation, arms reduction and acts of engagement.
Among people who follow politics without national interest, Mr. Obama's diplomacy has been far more significant than anything else in the world this year.
"For people working on nuclear disarmament, this prize is overwhelmingly important, in particular because Obama has taken the most important steps in his few months in office, and because we view it as an endorsement of the urgency of this mission," said William Hartung, director of the New York based Arms and Security Initiative and a leading arms-control authority.
Peace is never easy to define, especially in the middle of the action.
A local, unambiguous ending of a single conflict is easy to identify: Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk were easy to honour for ending apartheid, and John Hume and David Trimble for ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, although that conflict didn't end until 10 years after their prize.
But the head of a powerful nation who plays the three-dimensional chess of global change - that is a gamble. The prize could help Mr. Obama's cause or it could dash his hopes on the rocky shoals of xenophobic domestic politics.
This is what peace looks like in the real world: Messy, ambiguous, contradictory, troubled. In other words, it looks like Barack Obama.Report Typo/Error