How the Nobel Peace Prize fails

By Eric Mathison

The creation of the peace prize by Alfred Nobel was a strange choice. Chemistry, Nobel’s personal research area, was an obvious one, and physics seemed to fit as well. The others make some amount of sense: physiology or medicine and literature round out the likely options, or at least the most probable ones to choose at the end of the nineteenth century. But why choose peace? Some have suggested Nobel was suffering from the guilt of inventing dynamite and ballistite — a form of smokeless gunpowder that changed military tactics considerably — but pretty much since its inception, the prize for peace has been a contentious one.

The most recent recipient in the long history of the award, of course, is U.S. President Barack Obama. You may be asking yourself, “didn’t he just take office earlier this year?” Yes, he did. In fact, the nominations had to be handed in by February 1, which means Obama was in office only 11 days before his nomination was submitted. Now, nominations can be submitted by past Nobel winners, as well as members of international courts, professors and politicians. This adds up to thousands of people, and so it’s possible that one person somewhere thought Obama had done enough to earn the prize in 11 days.

But that’s not why Obama won the prize. According to the Nobel committee, Obama’s contribution to peace in the world has been his “efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” It is possible to concede that, unlike the other prize categories, peace is a bit harder to measure, and it’s also not for a specific discovery or advancement, but rather an ongoing process. I will concede these points, because peace is a worthy goal, even if there will never come a time when it’s no longer necessary to award.

One might even concede (I won’t) that the work Obama has done up till now has been worthy of a peace prize. His “Cairo Speech,” which has reframed relations between the Middle East and the United States, was important; it also speaks to his larger diplomatic goal of engaging with belligerent countries such as Iran and North Korea, which is surely preferable to war if it’s possible. If only he had done any of these things in time for his nomination. But he hadn’t, because he was in his presidential infancy.

If this faulty appointment was a one-off case in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, it might be forgivable. Unfortunately a number of other controversial winners exist throughout its history. It will suffice to point out two of the most repugnant cases.

In 1973, then U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was awarded the peace prize. He won the prize for negotiating a peace settlement between North and South Vietnam, and the settlement was also supposed to mark the beginning of the exit of American troops.

Anthony Summers’ book The Arrogance of Power persuasively argues that Kissinger, acting under President Nixon, was complicit in destroying the original peace process in 1968, which led to the war being drawn out a half-decade longer than it should have. Further, the bombings that took place under orders from Nixon and passed on by Kissinger resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Indochinese civilians, as well as the ecological destruction of large portions of Vietnam and Cambodia. These actions amount to war crimes, not a Nobel Prize.

The other venerated person who deserves exactly the opposite treatment is Mother Theresa. It’s sufficiently telling how little she deserved a peace prize by pointing out her view that the greatest obstacle to peace in the world is abortion. She repeatedly said that poverty and suffering were gifts from God, and her documented failure to provide medicine to the dying — instead choosing to baptize them — is the furthest thing from something worthy of award.

Obama hasn’t yet done anything to deserve condemnation, but he’s done so little to deserve award that it leaves the whole Nobel process in doubt. The peace prize should be a lifetime award to honour continually striving for peace in the world. If it is handed out, as it is now, for one action, it should also be able to be rescinded should new and damning evidence become available.

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