On October 9, 2009, the five obscure Norwegians who choose the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize announced the year’s laureate: President Barack Obama. At that point, the newly elected U.S. president had been in office for nine months. In fact, when nominations for the 2009 award formally closed on the previous February 1, he had been in office for 12 days. Even some of the most diehard supporters of both Obama and the Peace Prize were dismayed. President Obama, who pronounced himself “humbled” at the announcement, seemed bemused.
For the Nobel panel, however, the president’s actual attainments were not an issue. The Nobel committee hailed Obama for creating a “new climate in international politics” and for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” His diplomacy, the panel said, “is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.” As Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor and columnist at National Review, dryly notes in his new book, Peace, They Say (Encounter, 467 pages), “It is a most perspicacious panel that knows the values and attitudes, the mind and hearts, of the world’s population (7 billion).”
As it happens, the Nobel committee knew very well what those values and attitudes should be: conveniently, their own. The committee stated in the press release announcing Obama’s elevation: “For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman.”
In other words, Obama was the Nobel committee’s messiah, the incarnation of its Absolute Idea—or, more prosaically, the personification of their international brand. Yet another way to think about it is that Obama was the Nobel committee’s first postmodern laureate: a personage whose identity was not based on any measurable accomplishment or unvarying principle, but was entirely constructed in the perceptions of his admiring Nobel committee audience.
As Nordlinger observes: “Was Barack Obama not an American president after the committee’s own heart? He was practically a soulmate of theirs, sharing basically the same worldview. If the Norwegian Nobel Committee—if Scandinavian political elites—could design an American president, he would look a lot like Obama.” His selection, Nordlinger notes, “blessed a new day.”
In the years since Obama was lauded for what he had not yet done, his much admired policies and attitudes have included an announced unilateral withdrawal date for American troops in Afghanistan (to occur after a temporary surge of troops in the same theater); unilateral concessions to Russia on anti-missile defense, both at home and abroad; novel insults to and pressures on the conservative government of Benjamin Netanyahu to make Israel better conform to the Obama administration’s vision of a problematic Middle East peace; a soul-shake with Venezuelan Communist dictator Hugo Chávez; a cold shoulder to a nascent popular rebellion in Iran; and a similar combination of rhetorical hostility and practical non-support toward the very serious uprising against the Assad dictatorship in Syria. Most pertinent, Obama has offered much rhetoric but relatively little action against the growing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and its avowed aim of annihilating Israel.
Such a huge gap between the expectations and undeniable prestige engendered by the Nobel Peace award and the far less impressive achievements of its recipients is not atypical. It is one of the most important themes of Nordlinger’s lucid and insightful book. As he puts it: “Some people have given up on the Nobel Peace Prize. They think it’s a joke, a farce, a crock—a scandal. I myself have thought that from time to time.”
But Nordlinger has not given up. In this lengthy chronology-cum-meditation, he has made a painstaking and evenhanded effort to chronicle the prize in terms of its accomplishments, to balance the good that it has done against its often anti-Western (especially anti-American) selections. He has even come up with suggestions for improvement. The likelihood that his suggestions will be taken is fairly close to nil, for reasons that he himself provides.
The fact is that the closer one gets to the present day, the less impressive the Nobel balance sheet proves to be. This is probably not an accident. At the time of its inception, as the posthumous project of Swedish dynamite-manufacturer Alfred Nobel, the prize was designed as an annual achievement award for “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” In its earlier days, the Nobel roster encompassed such idealists as Frank B. Kellogg (whose name is affixed to a 1928 treaty outlawing war as an instrument of policy), Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr. It even included a former general, George Marshall, the guiding spirit behind the Marshall Plan.
But how is one to justify, in terms of that charter, such names on the roster as Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which worked long and hard to minimize the growing nuclear threat of Iran? Or Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan native with a doctored personal history who has been an apologist for Marxist violence in Central America and beyond? Or, above all, Yasir Arafat, awarded the prize in 1994 with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Arafat was honored for a Middle Eastern peace process he had no intention of honoring. And escalating campaigns of violence he encouraged lasted until his confinement two years before his death in 2004.
And then there is the ever problematic Jimmy Carter, given the award in 2002, a full two decades after he left the White House, “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” No mention of his often feckless and meddlesome role in forestalling official U.S. foreign policy, something ex-presidents are supposed never to do, or of the fact that evidently loomed most in the Nobel committee’s mind: He was not George W. Bush, the American president then fully launched into the post-9/11 war on terror.
Nordlinger recounts that the Nobel committee chairman of the day, Gunnar Berge, specifically said: “[the Carter award] 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.” In all, Nordlinger counts five Nobels that could be considered not-so-veiled assaults on the Bush administration.
Why? The most important thing about the prize is that it is handed out by a committee selected by the parliament of Norway, a country of some five million people on the periphery of Europe and, until recently, one of the most homogenous societies on the continent. Norway practices the secular socialism of the rich: redistribution of the natural-resource wealth of a nation large in size and small in population. It has never been powerful. It has been the historical standard-bearer of the peaceful arbitration of international disputes.
Norway’s values and attitudes could hardly be described as those shared by the “majority of the world’s population.” But its checkbook speaks volumes. For years, it has featured among the top 10 donors to the United Nations, lately handing over a little less than one billion dollars annually. This may speak well of Norway’s ideals, but no less of its shrewd ability to create a force-multiplier for its foreign policy that it could not afford in conventional terms. For Norway, high-minded generosity is a disguised form of self-interest.
The same goes for the Nobel Peace Prize, which, as Nordlinger points out, is by dint of its selection process bound up intimately with the parliamentary politics of Norway.
The chairman of the Nobel committee that chose Barack Obama, for example, was Thorbjorn Jagland, a longtime chieftain in Norway’s leftist Labor Party. Jagland had been a not very illustrious prime minister and foreign minister. He was also once vice president of the Socialist International and was named secretary general of the Council of Europe in the same year he won his Nobel committee post. Other political parties are represented on the committee, but, as Nordlinger observes, “Norwegian political life is tilted sharply to the left.”
At its most honorable, as Nordlinger fair-mindedly notes, that bias has expressed itself in terms of genuinely laudable choices. But as its socialist inclinations have become more obvious, so has the Nobel committee’s sense of self-righteousness, not to mention its mission creep. Along with chastising the Bush administration, and U.S. policy generally, the committee has awarded the prize for such things as micro-finance (Mohammad Yunus, 2006); selfless medical activity (Médicins Sans Frontières, 1999); and for publishing the not-very-accurate facts on global warming (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Al Gore, 2007). The 2011 Nobel went to a trio of women headed by just elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Significantly, the second paragraph of that 2011 Nobel Prize press release cited a United Nations Security Council resolution, passed in 2000, which “for the first time made violence against women in armed conflict an international security issue.” The Nobel Prize committee’s thinking on what constitutes peace, it seems, now owes a lot to the UN.
Indeed, in recent years, it is striking how often the Nobel Prize committee has found the UN, its various organs, and those who serve its objectives to be the world’s greatest peacemakers and how much they, in turn, reciprocate the regard.
Along with Gore and the Climate Change Panel, there is of course ElBaradei. But there is also the United Nations itself, which won along with Kofi Annan (2001), then its secretary general, who would describe the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as “illegal,” even though it was launched in response to a crumbling UN sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein and in accord with the UN’s own Resolution 1441. There is Marrti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, long-serving senior UN bureaucrat, and special envoy for Kofi Annan in Kosovo, who won the 2008 Prize for “his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts.” The list goes on.
Some laureates are now engaged in supporting the UN in other ways. Muhammad Yunus, for example, is on the Board of the UN Foundation, which mobilizes “the energy and expertise of business and nongovernmental organizations to help the UN tackle issues including climate change, global health, peace and security, women’s empowerment, poverty eradication, energy access, and U.S.-UN relations.” Another board member is Annan. Yet a third is Gro Harlem Brundtland, who, although not a laureate, is another socialist Norwegian former prime minister and matriarch of the UN-sponsored concept of sustainable development.
Remarkably enough, all of the UN’s issues have increasingly become the Peace Prize’s issues. Indeed, one detects an accelerating torrent of formulaic, UN-style prose in the language of the Nobel committee. The torrent occasionally dries up, as it did in 2010, with the award to Chinese human-rights defender Liu Xiaobo, “for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” But Liu’s award feels like an exception in the second decade of the Nobel’s second century.
Nordlinger feels that for all its hypocrisies and pro-Communist or anti-Western biases, the Nobel Peace Prize is still worth keeping—precisely because of those exceptional cases. He would pare it back drastically, in terms of frequency and the range of its UN-style mission, and have it focus on its primary purpose of honoring those who do the most to promote “fraternity among nations.”
Above all, he would have those who bestow the prize practice an apparently unknown virtue: modesty. “To declare someone a ‘champion of peace,’ in Alfred Nobel’s phrase, is a bold act,” he advises. “To declare him the greatest champion in all the world is an even bolder one. With all the humility we can muster, we must try to be sure we know what we are talking about.”
Increasingly, however, it looks like the history of the Nobel Peace Prize is moving in exactly the opposite direction.