WASHINGTON -- President Obama said Friday he was "most surprised and deeply humbled" to win the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, adding that he accepts the honor as "a call to action to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."
In a brief statement in the White House Rose Garden on Friday, the president said he does not "view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments," but rather as a recognition of goals he has set for the United States and the world.
"I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize," he said.
Obama will go to Oslo in December to accept the honor, which includes a $1.4 million award, the White House said.
Obama will donate the entire amount to charity, a spokesman said.
The Nobel committee said its decision to honor the president was motivated by Obama's initiatives to reduce nuclear arms, ease tensions with the Muslim world and stress diplomacy and cooperation rather than unilateralism.
The choice was stunning nonetheless, given the nomination deadline of Feb.1, less than two weeks after the Obama presidency began.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama woke up to the news a little before 6 a.m. EDT.
"The president was humbled to be selected by the committee," Gibbs said.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee lauded the change in global mood wrought by Obama's calls for peace and cooperation, but recognized initiatives that have yet to bear fruit: reducing the world stock of nuclear arms, easing American conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthening the U.S. role in combating climate change.
"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," said Thorbjoern Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Committee.
Former President Jimmy Carter said awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama was a "bold statement of international support for his vision and commitment."
Carter won the peace prize himself in 2002, two decades after leaving office. In a statement, he described the Nobel committee's decision Friday as support for Obama's work toward peace and harmony in international relations.
Carter says the award shows the Obama administration represents hope not only for Americans, but for people around the world.
Another Nobel Laureate, former Vice President Al Gore, called Obama's Nobel Peace Prize award extremely well deserved and an honor for the country.
Gore, who shared the Peace Prize in 2007 for his work on global warming, said that what Obama has accomplished already is going to be far more appreciated in the eyes of history. He cited Obama's United Nations speech on abolishing nuclear weapons, his shifting of the missile defense program in Eastern Europe, and Russia joining with the United States and other countries to confront Iran on nuclear nonproliferation.
Gore delivered his remarks Friday at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Madison, Wis.
Still, with the U.S. at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Congress yet to pass a law reducing carbon emissions, and with little significant reduction in global nuclear stockpiles since Obama took office, some said the award was premature..
"So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far. He is still at an early stage. He is only beginning to act," said former Polish President Lech Walesa, a 1983 Nobel Peace laureate.
"This is probably an encouragement for him to act. Let's see if he perseveres. Let's give him time to act," Walesa said.
"The real question Americans are asking is, What has President Obama actually accomplished?" Steele said in a statement.
Steele, who took over the reins of the GOP earlier this year, said he thought it was "unfortunate that the president's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights."
He said he doesn't think Obama will be "receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action."
Some of Obama's critics said the award appeared to be a slap at President George W. Bush from a committee that harshly criticized him for his largely unilateral military action in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The Nobel committee praised Obama's creation of "a new climate in international politics" and said he had returned multilateral diplomacy and institutions like the U.N. to the center of the world stage.
The Nobel committee chairman said after awarding the 2002 prize to Carter, for his mediation in international conflicts, that it should be seen as a "kick in the leg" to the Bush administration's hard line in the buildup to the Iraq war.
Five years later, the committee honored Bush's adversary in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore, for his campaign to raise awareness about global warming.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who won the prize in 1984, said Obama's award shows great things are expected from him in coming years.
"It's an award coming near the beginning of the first term of office of a relatively young president that anticipates an even greater contribution towards making our world a safer place for all," Tutu said. "It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama's message of hope."
Until seconds before the award, speculation had focused on a wide variety of candidates besides Obama: Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, a Colombian senator, a Chinese dissident and an Afghan women's rights activist, among others. The Nobel committee received a record 205 nominations for this year's prize; it is not known who nominated Obama.
"The exciting and important thing about this prize is that it's given to someone ... who has the power to contribute to peace," Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said.
Obama became the third sitting U.S. president to win the award: Theodore Roosevelt won in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson was awarded the prize in 1919.
Obama was to meet with his top advisers on the Afghan war on Friday to consider a request by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to send as many as 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan as the war there enters its ninth year.
Obama ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan earlier this year and has continued the use of unmanned drones for attacks on militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a strategy devised by the Bush administration. The attacks often kill or injure civilians living in the area.
In July talks in Moscow, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed that their negotiators would work out a new limit on delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads of between 500 and 1,100. They also agreed that warhead limits would be reduced from the current range of 1,700-2,200 to as low as 1,500. The United States now has about 2,200 such warheads, compared to about 2,800 for the Russians.
There has been no word on whether either side has started to act on the reductions.
Former Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, said Obama has already provided outstanding leadership in the effort to prevent nuclear proliferation.
"In less than a year in office, he has transformed the way we look at ourselves and the world we live in and rekindled hope for a world at peace with itself," ElBaradei said. "He has shown an unshakeable commitment to diplomacy, mutual respect and dialogue as the best means of resolving conflicts."
Obama also has tried to restart stalled talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, but just a day after Obama hosted the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in New York, Israeli officials boasted that they had fended off U.S. pressure to halt settlement construction. Moderate Palestinians said they felt undermined by Obama's failure to back up his demand for a freeze.
Nominators for the prize include former laureates; current and former members of the committee and their staff; members of national governments and legislatures; university professors of law, theology, social sciences, history and philosophy; leaders of peace research and foreign affairs institutes; and members of international courts of law.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation welcomed Obama's award on behalf of its founder, Nelson Mandela, who shared the 1993 Peace Prize with then-South African President F.W. DeKlerk for their efforts at ending years of apartheid and laying the groundwork for a democratic country.
"We trust that this award will strengthen his commitment, as the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, to continue promoting peace and the eradication of poverty," the foundation said.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.