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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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.”)