The Sorry State of the Nobel Peace Prize

Photograph Source: Gösta Florman (1831–1900) / The Royal Library – Public Domain

Criteria for a Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize was established by Alfred Nobel in his will of 1895. Nobel was a Swedish chemist (he invented dynamite) and wealthy arms manufacture. He died in 1896, and the first Peace Prize was awarded in 1901. It has been awarded annually ever since—except, reasonably enough, during periods plagued by worldwide war.

Nobel may or may not have created this award out of remorse for how he made his fortune. However, that he was both a purveyor of the means of violence, and a supporter of peace through arbitration and negotiation, turns out to be a contradiction that also characterizes some of the winners of his Peace Prize. How did this evolve?

As described in his will, Nobel meant the Peace Prize to be awarded to those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Note that the first two criteria are really bold, idealistic goals—ones that might be expected to have lasting consequences. Nominations can come from a wide range of sources, but the final selection is, again according to Nobel’s will, made by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, a five-member group appointed by the Parliament of Norway.

The problem that periodically arises with the Peace Prize rests with the way the Nobel Committee makes its selections. Nobel’s idealistic goals for the prize seem to have been abandoned and much narrower criteria adopted. There also appears to be a lack of thoroughness in the vetting of candidates as well as any detailed understanding of the specific hostilities being adjudicated. This may have arisen out of the practice of just concentrating on one narrow peace-related event—an event often bound to be undone by longer-term circumstances that have been ignored by both the winner of the prize and the selection committee that awarded it.

To proceed in this fashion means that you ignore what Nobel very likely understood to be a guiding principle—the principle that peacemaking should be an act with some enduring meaning. That is, achieving even temporary peace should at least lay down the possibility of building “fraternity” between adversaries—and this always requires a modicum of justice to be part of the realized peace. Thus, those deserving of a Peace Prize should be seen as assisting in the reworking of an otherwise violent human culture. As it presently stands, this higher ideal is being ignored in order to award the Peace Prize to those who may have “contributed to peace” in a much more narrow fashion—a peace that is often lacking justice and thus short-lived. In some cases the winner turns out to be someone who, like Alfred Nobel himself, was also a purveyor of war or other forms of violence.

Some Examples of Bad Judgment

—Theodore Roosevelt: Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his “successful mediation of the Russo-Japanese war” (1904-1905), and for his alleged “interest in arbitration” to settle inter-state conflicts. The problem with this nomination is that just a few years earlier, in 1898, Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, strongly pushed for an unnecessary American war against Spain. Even before that war broke out, Roosevelt had arranged for Commodore George Dewey and a U.S. battle fleet to be poised to attack the Philippines, then a Spanish colony. After the Spanish-American War broke out, Roosevelt, who had a romantic rather than realistic notion of warfare, resigned his government post and formed a volunteer cavalry unit known as the “Rough Riders.” Roosevelt and his regiment saw action in Cuba.  So who was Theodore Roosevelt? Was he a champion of peace through arbitration, or a purveyor of unnecessary war? This was a question the Nobel Prize Committee seemed to ignore.

Henry Kissinger: Kissinger received the prize in 1973 for  his part in negotiations that were “intended to bring about a cease-fire in the Vietnam war and a withdrawal of the American forces.” While the talks did result in a signed ceasefire document, it never was fully observed in the field. Kissinger was awarded the Prize along with his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho. However, having a much more sober sense of what was and was not accomplished, Le Duc Tho refused to accept the award.

Kissinger is a good example of an influential man who is so enamored of his personal idea of realpolitik that the goal of peace is little more than an abstraction. His negotiations with the North Vietnamese were carried on against the background of a deadly bombing campaign waged by the Nixon administration—a campaign which Kissinger approved and relied upon in the hope of forcing the North Vietnamese to acquiesce to American demands.

Kissinger would go on to become an ally of the fascist Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and did all he could to sideline the Carter administration’s effort to bring to justice the Chilean assassins of Orlando Letelier, a prominent Chilean dissident and former ambassador to the United States. Letelier was killed by a car bomb in Washington, D.C., at a site that is only a 20-minute walk from the White House. This was “the first known act of state-sponsored terrorism ever to take place in the American capital,” and was an act of which Kissinger seemed to have no objections.

Henry Kissinger was such a bad choice for the Nobel Peace Prize that two dissenting members of the selection committee withdrew in protest.

 Menachem Begin: Begin, along with Anwar al-Sadat, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 for agreeing to a negotiated peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Sadat, who was the Egyptian leader, surely deserved the award. He risked a lot for peace: the isolation of Egypt within the Arab world, the enmity of the Palestinians, and eventually his life.

The problem here was that you could not reward Sadat’s courage without also awarding the Israeli leader Menachem Begin, whose primary objective was to be as crafty and mendacious as possible while pacifying Israel’s western border. This was seen as a necessary step that would allow further illegal, and quite violent, Israeli expansion eastward. In other words, for Begin, a peace treaty with Egypt was a tactical move—a small sacrifice for the sake of winning a bigger war. The man had no interest in peace or fraternity as self-evident worthwhile goals.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent effort to bring civil government and human rights to her country, Myanmar (Burma). In this case it is true that she fought, non-violently, for civil government. However, as it turned out, Aung San Suu Kyi was not willing to fight for human rights for all the people of Myanmar. This is something that a more thorough vetting process might have revealed.

As it stands at present, she is implicated in a campaign of ethnic cleansing being waged by her government against the Rohingya Muslim minority of western Myanmar. An estimated 700,000 Rohingya have been violently driven from the country through the use of terror tactics such as murder, rape and pillage. “In August 2018, a United Nations fact-finding commission accused the Burmese military of genocide—a view endorsed by, among others, experts at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.” Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to such criticism is “show me a country without human rights issues.” This casual and dismissive attitude toward bestial  national behavior, coming from a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is an indication of real problems with the Peace Prize selection process.

The Wearing Away of Ideals

What happens when something as prestigious as the Nobel Peace Prize becomes periodically sullied due to  superficial vetting by those involved in both the nomination and selection process? The answer is the slow wearing away of yet another ideal that might support a better future for all of us. Other ideals that are similarly suffering such a fate are the rule of law represented by international law and international courts, and the importance of human rights as a universal value. At present such ideals are in retreat before resurgent, often racist, nationalism.

Is it any surprise then that the Nobel Peace Prize has failed to encourage the search for peace as a conscious goal for the world’s statesmen and stateswomen? It hasn’t brought us any closer to world peace, nor has it discouraged the waging of regional wars at a more or less continuous rate.

In many ways the world has become increasingly hostile to the ideal of peace as well as the reality of a human collective. There has always been significant numbers of people who feel that they would rather have civil rights limited to their dominant group and the enforcement of a “cultural dictatorship” that reflects this radical “majority rule” scenario. It should be noted that this is not just an American problem. It is a worldwide problem.

There can be no long-term national peace under these circumstances. There can only be repeated episodes of ethnic cleansing, the institution of apartheid, and the xenophobic abuse we find personified in the West by Donald Trump. And, where racism and xenophobia prevail nationally, international laws and regulations that demand universal respect for human rights are doomed. If this situation prevails, then sooner or later, the xenophobic national groupings will turn against each other and ever-larger-scale international war will become probable. At that point, if there is any prize at all, it will be given for the most effective denigration of the “other.” The Nobel Peace Prize, always a weak vessel for promoting the virtues of peace, will have gone to ground along with international law and human rights.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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