The Magazine

Mysteries of Oslo

The tenuous relation of the Nobel Peace Prize to peace.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By JOHN BOLTON
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The Nobel Peace Prize is the world’s most prestigious award, as Jay Nordlinger argues in this erudite and insightful history. He has written not only the go-to reference book for the prize and its laureates but also an important philosophical reflection on the nature of “peace” in modern times.

Photo of Jimmy Carter receiving the Nobel Peace Prize

Jimmy Carter in 2002


In most of the world, criticism of the five-person Nobel committee that confers the prize at its sole discretion is rare to nonexistent. Amidst the near-universal approval, however, there have been some controversial recipients: Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 (for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War, not for charging up San Juan Hill); George Marshall in 1953 (for his eponymous Plan, not for helping bring peace to Europe by winning World War II); Henry Kissinger in 1973 (although there were few objections to Le Duc Tho, his North Vietnamese co-laureate, who subsequently declined the honor); and Menachem Begin in 1978 (similarly few cavils, justifiably so here, about Anwar Sadat, Begin’s peace partner).

In America, by contrast, not only were these Nobels much less controversial, they were generally quite popular. We more likely object to the likes of Mohamed ElBaradei (2005), head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and an apologist for Iran’s nuclear weapons program, whom Nordlinger correctly tags as quite possibly the worst selection. Or Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1992), the Guatemalan activist and “author,” as fraudulent a winner as there ever was, and a 500th anniversary knock on Columbus. And of course, Yasser Arafat (1994), a terrorist all his days despite frequent protestations to the contrary.  

And on it goes. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (1985) was cofounded by Yev-
geny Chazov, a member of the Soviet Communist party’s Central Committee who, in 1973, helped launch the Kremlin’s public campaign against Andrei Sakharov (ironically, the 1975 winner). The Nobel committee honored Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 but declined to share the prize, as it had in analogous cases (two noted above), with Ronald Reagan, his fitting counterpart. 

In 1995 Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an antinuclear moveable feast established by the pro-Soviet businessman Cyrus Eaton, won. How bad was the Pugwash movement? A former adviser to French president Jacques Chirac said it was “openly manipulated by the Soviets.” Giving the traditional acceptance lecture for the Pugwashers on Presentation Day, December 10 (the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death), was one of its officers, John P. Holdren—subsequently science adviser to President Obama. Maybe Obama doesn’t really need to whisper sweet nothings to Dmitry Medvedev.

Oh, and a few more. Kofi Annan (2001), after heading U. N. peacekeeping operations during the Rwanda and Srebrenica massacres; Jimmy Carter (2002); Wangari Maathai (2004) for “sustainable development,” one of those U. N.-style phrases that means everything and nothing; and Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007). Notice how many of those came during George W. Bush’s administration? And then, the crowning achievement: Barack Obama won in 2009 after less than a year in office. (We might well ask, when will Bill Clinton and John Kerry collect their Nobels?)

This continuing disparity between the predominant American reaction to the Peace Prize and the reactions of Europeans and others is vivid evidence of American exceptionalism. It underscores how the prize committee (elected by Norway’s parliament and uniformly composed of Norwegians) has frequently embraced a different concept of “peace” (and how to get it) than a large majority of Americans. We tend to like what the man carrying the Big Stick spoke softly in his Nobel acceptance lecture (in 1910, after leaving the White House):

Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness .  .  . No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong.