The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama came as a shock to many people, especially in the U.S. “But what has he accomplished?” the TV pundits complained. “It’s just too soon for him to be recognized in this way!” Much of the grumbling, in my view, badly misunderstands what the prize is all about and what it has become in recent years.
The story is long and complicated, but one turning point stands out. For many decades after its founding in the early 20th century, the Peace Prize Committee gave the award to presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and official international organizations. It was basically a way to recognize notable achievements in peace negotiations, including treaties, service to the U.N. and the like. Then, in 1973 the committee gave the prize to Henry Kissinger (of all people!) and also to Le Doc To for their efforts to end the Vietnam War. Whatever the opinion of this decision may have been around the world, it brought a fire storm of criticism in Norway because many people there regarded Kissinger as a war criminal for his policies of U.S. bombing in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The ensuing shake-up in the Peace Prize Committee gave it a new a tone and focus. If you look at the list persons and organizations that have won the Peace Prize since the Kissinger debacle, you’ll see an emphasis upon human rights and environmental activists along with humanitarians, often those whose work has become a major irritant to authoritarian political regimes. Yes, there are still prizes for heads of state and diplomats who’ve taken significant steps to lessen tensions and resolve conflicts within the community of nations. But the general thrust of the prize has been to recognize voices and strategies that promise long term improvement in human relationships and prospects for a healthy biosphere.
In that light, the Peace Prize is unlike those given in the sciences and literature. The accomplishment need not be evident in any tangible form. What is valued is the spirit of a body of work that moves the world in positive, humane directions. According to the criteria that govern the selection, the prize should be given to a person who has done the most to promote world peace during the previous year. This time the Committee’s statement simply affirms that Barack Obama deserves recognition “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." I don’t think there can be much quarrel with that judgment.
My own understanding of these matters stems from conversations with my friend and colleague, Norwegian historian Francis Sejersted, my host at a University of Oslo research center in the early 1990s and who was at the time Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. While he couldn’t discuss any specific deliberations about prize winners, he was fairly open about the general processes and sentiments that surround the operation. For example, he was greatly amused by the costly but ultimately futile public relations campaigns that try to promote particular candidates for the prize. “You’d be amazed at the stacks of materials that arrive at our door each day.” About Henry Kissinger he noted that the atmosphere of protest about the award evidently prevented him from coming to Oslo to receive it or to give the customary Nobel prize winner’s address. “But he did cash the check!” Sejersted said with a wink.
Over lunch one day I decide to poke fun at Francis about the direction and character of some of the recent decisions. “So let me see if I understand the process. You five guys in the Peace Prize Committee sit in a little room in downtown Oslo and ask: ‘OK, which nasty, brutal dictatorial regime shall we knock off this year?’ That’s how it works, right?”
Sejersted smiled and told me a story. “After the announcement of an award to a human rights advocate in South Asia, the president of the country in question asked angrily: ‘What difference does it make that a little group of Norwegians decide to give somebody a prize?’”
“He was perfectly right, of course” Francis agreed. “It shouldn’t make any difference that a group of people from a little country like Norway gives a prize!” Then he chuckled and said, “But is does make a difference. And the interesting thing is…no one knows why."
- Langdon Winner