Have you heard of Fritdtjof Nansen? Well, what about Miread Corrigan or Carlos Lamas? No surprise if you haven’t heard of any of them, although they are all winners of the “most famous and most controversial prize in the world.”
Jay Nordlinger’s book on the Nobel Peace Prize is both a joy to read and a fascinating account of how this most peculiar of prizes was created and has been awarded for more than a century. That few of the winners have remained in our collective memory is a function of the transience of worldly glories rather than the intrinsic worth of the prize.
Nordlinger starts by posing the key question: what are the criteria for choosing Nobel peace laureate?
The answer is that there is none, that is to say apart from the opinion of the Norwegian committee that chooses the winner. Norway and the Scandinavian countries in general, see themselves as “the conscience of mankind” and are thus influenced by their view of the world. Small and prosperous, the Scandinavian nations have managed to avoid involvement in most of the wars that tore Europe apart for centuries although Denmark and Norway were invaded and occupied by the Nazis between 1940 and 1945. The Scandinavians also largely stayed out of the great colonial scramble that led to the creation of various European empires in the 19th century. Looking for a role to play in international affairs, the Scandinavians cast themselves as bridge-builders in a world divided by conflicting national, ethnic and economic interests and ambitions. In a sense, therefore, the Nobel Peace Prize could be seen as a political beauty pageant in which the winner is picked according to Scandinavian tastes.
Although these tastes have changed with time, two constants remain. To win, a candidate needs to be politically to the left of centre. He or she also needs to be in the news for doing something “good”.
Whether or not the candidate is an actual peacemaker is beside the point. Joseph Stalin was nominated because he was supposed to be on the side of the downtrodden. (Mercifully, he didn’t win). And no stretch of imagination would turn Barack Obama, who won the prize just weeks after taking office, into a peacemaker. Another laureate, Mother Tersea of Calcutta, had an original view of war and peace. “The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion,” she said in her acceptance speech. “Because it is a direct war, a direct killing- direct murder by the mother herself.”
In some cases, pretending to be the maker or of keeper of peace may be enough. In 1988 the prize went to the United Nations’ Peacekeeping Forces. Accepting the prize, UN Secretary General Javier Peres de Cuellar mentioned William R. Higgins, a US Marine colonel who had served in the peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Higgins had been kidnapped, tortured and murdered by Hezbollah without provoking any retaliation from the UN.
And in 2005, it was the turn of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to win, although for years it had erroneously claimed that Iraq was in pursuit of nuclear weapons. That claim had helped make the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Some choices have been either comical or outrageous. Al Gore, an American politician, was awarded the prize for a TV documentary he had produced on global warming. Jimmy Carter was named a laureate although he had acted as an apologist for China and North Korea in their repression of dissidents. And, Rigoberta Menchu, who won in 1992, was subsequently exposed as a Communist militant falsely claiming to be a poor peasant victim of military rule in Guatemala. And what about the trio of Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres who won for a peace that is yet to be made?
One is also bound to feel uncomfortable with the choice of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo as the laureate in 2009. He may well be a great artist and a courageous dissident. But what has done for peace? One may also wonder why the Dalai Lama was chosen as a laureate. He may well be regarded as something of a divinity by his supporters in Tibet but could hardly be credited for services to peace.
In contrast, many people who helped build peace in their time never won the prize. One example is Chancellor Helmut Kohl who led the movement for German reunification and thus the end of Europe’s division into rival military blocs.
Nordlinger accuses the Norwegians of “moral arrogance” and asserts that they “lecture, preach and scold as well as guide.” The Nobel peace Prize is Norway’s, indeed Scandinavia’s principal means of having a claim to international attention. And, on balance, even Nordlinger, his well-reasoned criticism notwithstanding, admits that the Nobel peace Prize is worth preserving.
By: Jay Nordlinger
Published by: Encounter Books, New York 2012