Alfred Nobel's Other Mistake

By Alex Joffe
Friday, July 20, 2012

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.

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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