The Nobel Committee’s choice of a wartime president for its Peace Prize produced uncertainty and controversy at precisely the time when these are the last things the world really needs.
The traditional impression of Nobel Peace Prize winners is that of a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who led a sea change in civil rights but did so proclaiming non-violence as a path to those rights. It is of a John Hume David Trimble, who found a way to bring the Catholic and Protestant factions of Northern Ireland together and end the generations of violence that so long plagued that land. And it is of a Lester B. Pearson, who brought pride to Canada and relief to the world when, as minister of external affairs, he helped to avert war in Suez in 1956 and established the concept of United Nations peacekeeping.
Avoiding war and ending it; eschewing violence and facilitating peace have been the hallmarks of the prize awarded each December in Oslo. But in selecting U.S. President Barack Obama for the honor this year, at a time when he leads a nation at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Nobel Committee has broken new ground. No Nobel Laureate has ever accepted the prize while waging war, no matter how vile the enemy or righteous the cause. And certainly no one has accepted it having just escalated the number of troops involved.
In accepting his award today in Oslo, Mr. Obama gave a speech that was both strong and humble, inspiring and reassuring. But in advancing the idea that some wars are necessary to defend the peace; that some enemies are so threatening that they need to be eradicated, however indisputable that is, he took the Nobel Committee into territory where it, and no other recipient, has ever gone before.
Perhaps it is a view of the world that will be sustained over time and winners of the iconic prize for peace will be warriors engaged in battle. It may be that peace is about more than non-violence, and that the use of force is both justified and demanded when there is a moral imperative to act. There have been occasions in recent years – Bosnia and Darfur come to mind – when the West was too slow to intervene in the face of the atrocities that were occurring. On the other hand, perhaps this will be seen as an aberration and the view will be reasserted that the quest for peace should be something unique, that war offers no sure guarantee of peace, and, at the very least, that the recipient should not be leading a nation at war.
As we suggested when the award was announced to a stunned world months ago, none of this is Mr. Obama’s fault. He did not ask for this prize. He sought not to offend anyone in accepting it, and to honor those who have come before him. He gave a fine speech. But it does seem that, if one is to take things like the Nobel Prize for Peace seriously, the custodians of it may have unleashed precedents and raised questions that make the world – and their section of it, especially – more complicated.
Times of sea change, which by any economic or geopolitical measure this juncture in the 21st century surely is, also need their quiet harbors of calm and predictability. It would be churlish not to congratulate Mr. Obama on his achievement and acknowledge the skill and forthright manner in which he tackled the inherent conflicts between peace and war. But the fact is that this was an award that produced uncertainty and controversy at precisely the time when these are the last things the world really needs.
In the long history of this honor, no head of state has ever received the Peace Prize while he has been in the midst of prosecuting, much less preparing to escalate, an active war. This year’s choice raises many questions, starting with: Who is behind the award?
The first point to be made about the awarding of the famed Nobel Peace Prize to U.S. President Barack Obama, in the ninth month of his first term, is that it is not his fault. He didn’t even apply. The second is that when the world accords to select bodies and private interests the power to bestow fame and prestige, it should not be surprised when those decisions go a little awry. They have on several occasions in the Peace Prize department.
Here are some useful facts: The Norwegian Parliament elects five members who select the winner of the Peace Prize, and they serve for a five-year term. The 2009 committee is made up of past politicians –every one of them. There are no academics or scholars permitted to sit on the committee. There are no non-Norwegians allowed. This is a closed shop. A Norwegian closed shop.
Closed, too, is the nomination process. The committee decides which individuals and organizations are permitted to make nominations for the prize. Over the years, an interesting tapestry has emerged. Hitler and Mussolini were nominated. Joseph Stalin was nominated twice. Mahatma Gandhi, one of modern history’s most iconic symbols of peaceful change and non-violence, was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948. He did not win the prize, nor did nominees Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt. No wonder the prize’s organizers have elevated to the status of state secret who is actually nominated for the award. That information is kept sealed for half a century. So is the controversy that might attend the decision-making. How do you confront fascism and make the world safe for democracy and not win a prize for peace? Only the folks in Oslo seem to know for sure.
On the face of today’s announcement, it would appear that a committee composed of past politicians has been caught up in the euphoria that surrounds one of the most impressive masters of that craft. In doing so, they have broken, likely unmindfully as so often occurs in states of euphoria, an important precedent. In the long history of this honor, no head of state has ever received the Peace Prize while he has been in the midst of prosecuting, much less preparing to escalate, an active war. As he received word of the committee’s decision today, Mr. Obama was about to meet with his “war” cabinet in the White House Situation Room, to examine recommendations to increase troop strength in Afghanistan.
Long before he was nominated for the office of President, we admired and supported Barack Obama. He displayed a unique set of gifts as he aspired to lead the United States, and, by extension, much of the world. His shift to a more inclusive form of global consultative leadership, as distinct from his predecessor’s divisive brand of bullying, is to be applauded and encouraged. But it is this very admiration that compels us to observe that the Nobel Committee would have done him, and the reputation of the honor with which Alfred Nobel entrusted them, a greater service by giving the youthful President more time to accomplish his goals and to present a solid record of achievement. Statements of good intentions, no matter how eloquently espoused, are no match for comforting millions struggling with poverty and disease or ending a war that enflamed the world. Mr. Obama is smart enough to realize that. He is also smart enough to know that such an award can only serve to raise even higher expectations whose outcome depends as much on others as it does on him. Indeed, such early distinction might have a counterproductive effect in a world where jealous egos and petty rivalries can often make a fast meal of genuine progress.
Whatever else it does, the award will encourage others to take a much needed look at who is making these decisions and to question how well the virtues of openness and transparency, which are essential to nearly every other important global institution, are being served.
We suggest that a good beginning for such a review start with an enumeration of the chairman and members of the 2009 committee:
Thorbjørn Jagland (chair, born 1950), member of Parliament, President of the Storting and former cabinet minister for the Labour Party. Member and chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee since 2009.
Kaci Kullmann Five (deputy chair, born 1951), former member of Parliament and cabinet minister for the Conservative Party. Member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee since 2003, deputy chair since 2009.
Sissel Rønbeck (born 1950), deputy director, Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Riksantikvaren), former member of Parliament and cabinet minister for the Labour Party. Member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee since 1994.
Inger-Marie Ytterhorn (born 1941), former member of Parliament for the Progress Party. Member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee since 2000.
Ågot Valle (born 1945), member of Parliament for the Socialist Left Party. Member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee since 2009.