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Alfred Nobel's Other Mistake

In a world obsessed with awards, the Nobel Prizes stand out as something special. As prizes proliferate, Nobel laureates still attain global respect in their fields and celebrity beyond, as well as, nowadays, a prize of over a million dollars.

Relevant Links
The Peacemakers Nobel Peace Prize laureates comprise a fraternity of the famous, the never-heard-of, the downright undeserving, and the all but saintly.
Nobel Nuggets  Jay Nordlinger, National Review. There was no Peace Prize for 1939, because Germany invaded Poland on September 1. (Forty-seven years later, Henry Kissinger would write to Elie Wiesel: “I was not proud of my Nobel, but I am of yours.”) 
Ennoblement In recent years, the Nobel Peace Prize has become mired in controversy. Does the nomination process hold a clue as to why?
Jewish Nobel Prize Winners   Jewish Virtual Library. It’s well known that Jews have won a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes. Here, a full list.
The Genesis Prize  JTA. Established in 2012 by a handful of Russian-Jewish oligarchs in collaboration with the Israeli government, the $1 million prize will reward outstanding achievement inspired by Jewish values.

In most of the award categories—physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, literature (the prize for economics only uses Nobel’s name)—choices rarely meet with controversy, at least not outside of their disciplinary communities. But as Jay Nordlinger shows in his entertaining new book, Peace, They Say, the Peace Prize is unique among the Nobel Prizes and the selection of each of its recipients elicits a strong public reaction that is more telling of politics than of peace.

Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), a cultivated Swedish chemical engineer, was himself emblematic of the contradictions of peace.  His development of nitroglycerine as a practical explosive had both industrial and military applications, taming mountains and ending lives on the battlefield. A reluctant life-long bachelor, his terse will left instructions for his fortune to be used for prizes that celebrated scientific discovery, to be awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

But he also specified another prize, for “the person who shall 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.”  This prize would be awarded by a committee of five people appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. Why did he choose Norway, which was ruled in union with Sweden until 1905?  This remains unclear.

Some choices for laureate in Peace were utterly uncontroversial, such as Fridtjof Nansen, who effectively created the modern regime of international refugee relief. Others, such as the German pacifist and then-political prisoner of the Nazis, Carl von Ossietzky, or, more recently, the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, proved (deliberately) provocative choices because of the regimes against which they protested.

But as Nordlinger points out, the expansive mandate of the Prize raised contradictions from the start. On some occasions the committee was carried away with fanciful aspiration, although perhaps it is only in hindsight that the award to, say, Woodrow Wilson, for his role in establishing the failed League of Nations, seems excessively optimistic.  Sometimes the Prize went to pacifists, like Bertha von Suttner, author of Lay Down Your Arms!, who demanded that war be abolished. Other times, it went to humanitarians, such as Henry Dunant, who helped found the International Committee of the Red Cross. The pacifists were incensed by the humanitarians, whom they accused of trying to make war palatable.  Worse, in their view, were the awards to the fighters, notably Theodore Roosevelt, for his mediation of the Russo-Japanese War, or General George Marshall, for his eponymous plan for post-World War II European recovery.  The Nobel committee’s definition of ‘peace’ seems to contain multitudes: disarmament, deterrence of war, healing during and after war.

This malleable definition of peace has accommodated civil rights activists, like Martin Luther King Jr., and recently even climate activists like Al Gore.  In 2009, the award to Barack Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” in his first eight months as president baffled many observers, but it is revealing.

Nordlinger’s kaleidoscopic tour through the annals of Nobel history demonstrates that in many cases, the awards are at least as prescriptive as they are recognition for actual accomplishment.  A further observation that particularly stands out is how few winners are remembered today. Who remembers John Raleigh Mott of the YMCA or Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato? History gradually puts winners in proportion.

And what is the record of the Nobel Peace Prize on Israel? The 1950 award was given to UN mediator Ralph Bunche, a dignified scholar and honorable diplomat, for his successful negotiation of the 1949 armistice between Israel and the Arab states. The 1978 award to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a rare example of actual peacemaking between two states, but was tarnished by Sadat’s murder and Jimmy Carter’s shameless self-aggrandizing and denigration of Begin. The 1995 award to Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin was perhaps the ultimate triumph of hope over experience, but one that at least had the Oslo Accords as evidence of achievement.  Sadly, in retrospect, it looks more like the misbegotten dreams of the post-World War I era, whose international institutions and treaties “banning war” were quickly felled by the hammer of reality. 

The award to the blood-soaked Arafat was the most controversial in history, a turning point after which many simply stopped taking the prize seriously.  But other awards may have been equally if not more damaging, such as the tragicomic award to Kofi Annan and the UN in 2001, or the 2005 award to Mohammad el-Baradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite their weak pursuit of the Iranian nuclear issue.

As laureates, these undeserving figures and institutions have been validated and further empowered: like all winners, they have an aura of “all-purpose, global gurus.” With the celebrity cachet of Oscar winners, they pose as experts on all manner of issues. (Laureate in Physics Richard Feynman wryly called the prizes “Alfred Nobel’s other mistake.”) For many the award unlocks the ego, sometimes the id, and for several, also their inner hatred of Israel and Jews: Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and Mairead Maguire are only the most notable examples and far from alone.  But the balance sheet is difficult: on the other side stand the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, and others who have exercised enormous moral suasion for good.   

Awareness of how the Nobel Peace Prize works, as a passive-aggressive tool of Norwegian “soft power,” diminishes its credibility. And recipients like Maguire, el-Baradei, and Arafat tarnish the reputation of the institution, and by extension that of the deserving winners. How can they be denied the stature and influence of a human rights pioneer like Rene Cassin, or dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Aung San Suu Kyi?

We seek heroes, but Nordlinger wisely cautions us that the esteem of the Nobel committee is often far from a true measure of the individual.  

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Bernard Friedland on July 20, 2012 at 10:42 am (Reply)
Nobel invented dynamite, not nitroglycerine.
    A.P. on July 22, 2012 at 11:08 am (Reply)
    What Joffe writes is true: Nobel developed "nitroglycerine as a practical explosive" -- into dynamite, which is stable.
m brukhes on July 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm (Reply)
Worst and most undeserving Nobel Peace Prize ever? Henry Kissinger. And I say that not to excuse Yassir Arafat, but at least in Arafat's case he was sharing the award with honorable people for a worthy, if incomplete and since prematurely abandoned, cause. Kissinger was almost single-handedly responsible for prolonging a war in which a cease-fire under identical terms had been proposed in 1969, then using the additional years of conflict to expand into horrendous war crimes in Laos and Thailand. And don't get me started on Cambodia!!!
    Raymond in DC on July 24, 2012 at 12:13 pm (Reply)
    It should be noted that Kissinger shared that Nobel with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho. As has happened so often since then, the Norwegians made their selection in order to promote a given political path.

    And given that Obama had only been in office a few weeks before nominations closed, it's hard to justify their claim that he was being awarded “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Rather the selection committee was signaling their own support for "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy".
Jerry Blaz on July 20, 2012 at 6:15 pm (Reply)
I believe that the Nobel Prize in its world-wide perspective, like the Israel Prize, which represents a similar evaluation of achievements in a smaller setting, should not be subject to second-guessing. It is true that both have their political significance, but they are benign representations of the attempt to elevate humankind and, in the case of the Israel prize, the Jewish accomplishments and attainments.
Steven D. Garber on August 10, 2012 at 9:23 am (Reply)
Other Nobel Prizes are awarded often long after the fact-after the person's amazing accomplishment is understood and appreciated. This is not the case with the Peace Prize. Instead of waiting, and selecting winners when their accomplishments that actually fostered peace are fully understood, the Committee acts on whim and with foolishness, making petty political statements just because they can. This is why the roster of Peace Prize Nobelists looks like a list of Vice Presidents. People who are more often than not, forgotten shortly after the limelight moves on.

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