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

Newscom

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.  

Theodore Roosevelt’s tough-minded assessment of “peace” still stands out amidst the bromides typical in the prize’s earlier days, and the generally hard-left rhetoric of so many laureates and the prize committee itself more recently. And in fairness, there are winners who have honestly labored diligently for peace, even if not necessarily in Roosevelt’s mold, such as Finland’s Martti Ahtisaari (2008), with his long record of public service at home and at the U. N. Moreover, many other undeniably worthy individuals have received the Nobel for peace, including Sakharov, Mother Teresa (1979), Lech Walesa (1983), Elie Wiesel (1986), the Dalai Lama (1989), and Liu Xiaobo (2010). Curiously, these winners are champions of human rights and the oppressed, not peace advocates or peacemakers.  

Is the Nobel committee outside the bounds of its mandate in making such awards? It insists that human rights advocates are doing the work of peace because, ultimately, real peace cannot exist unless human rights are vindicated—a pious sentiment to be sure, but not historically accurate. Indeed, the frequent contradiction between defending human rights and maintaining peace has been all too vivid during the hard, bloody decades of the prize’s existence.  

So while we can applaud the Peace Prizers for recognizing and empowering defenders of freedom, they risk making the Nobel an award merely for the great and good, as defined by five unknown Norwegians. Given the European (and Nordic) zeitgeist, over the long term, the balance sheet will not work out congenially for America.  The argument for a separate international honor for human rights is compelling, but one is unlikely to emerge with the luster emanating from the Nobel Peace Prize.  

Moreover, there is a corollary question about what Alfred Nobel actually intended. Did he want awards made for activity “during the preceding year,” as his will states?  Or did he contemplate “lifetime achievement awards,” as the judges (contemporaries of Nobel himself) decided in their very first, precedent-setting decision in 1901, honoring two laureates whose noteworthy work occurred decades before? The Peace Prize Committee has been all over the lot on this one, but its recent imperative to award prizes every year may be part of the problem. Nobel’s will clearly does not require annual awards. Perhaps the Peace Prize Committee should consult with those who decide on the economics prize (which is not really a Nobel, as Nordlinger explains) and learn that restricting the supply would make each Nobel more valuable. Debasing the currency is no virtue.

One of Nordlinger’s contributions here is the trove of direct quotations from the laureates, members of the Nobel committee, and contemporary observers. His digging in the rhetorical salt mines provides us greater access and insight into the thinking surrounding the prize, letting the winners, losers, decision-makers, and analysts speak in their own words.  This approach minimizes any carping that Nordlinger’s personal views are too intrusive, and thereby makes his temperate recounting and judgments all the more compelling. And Peace, They Say goes on and on—better than Bartlett’s.

Consider Jimmy Carter’s prize in 2002. The committee chairman Gunnar Berge said expressly that Carter’s selection “should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken. It’s a kick in the leg to all who follow the same line as the United States.”

Fortunately, Nordlinger knows his Norwegian idioms:  “Kick in the leg” is like saying “slap in the face” or “poke in the eye.” So it’s not just a knee-jerk reaction to believe that Carter’s award was meant to embarrass Bush; it’s the explanation offered by the chairman Peace Prizer himself!

Then take Wangari Maathai, the 2004 environmental laureate who said after being informed of her award: “I have no idea who created AIDS and whether it is a biological agent or not.  But I do know things like that don’t come from the moon. .  .  . I am sure people know where it came from. And I’m quite sure it did not come from the monkeys.” (Fortunately for the Peace Prize Committee, Maathai later issued a statement repudiating the idea “that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people.”)

If Norway has a watch list to detect undesirable foreigners trying to enter their country, Jay Nordlinger is undoubtedly on it. Not only has he said unkind things about the Nobel Peace Prize, he has said them in a devastatingly fair, thorough, and equitable treatment of the institution throughout its history. Had this book been a one-sided screed, the prize’s acolytes would have far less trouble in scoffing or ignoring it. Unfortunately for them, Peace, They Say is irreproachably temperate. 

Perhaps Nordlinger will next take on the Nobel Prize for literature!

John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations during 2005-06, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.