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Peace Prize Follies

The Nobel Peace Prize has a checkered history, to put it mildly. Here’s why.

Published on April 10, 2012


Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, John Boyd Orr confessed “grave doubts” about his worthiness to receive “the greatest honor any man can get.” Accepting the same award ten years later, Philip Noel-Baker said, “What more could any man or woman ask of Fate?” (Both of these laureates were British UN figures.) Writing about the prize in his memoirs, Henry Kissinger, one of the 1973 laureates, said, “There is no other comparable honor.” You might expect winners to talk this way: They have won, after all. But there is also the authority of Oxford’s Dictionary of Contemporary World History, which describes the Nobel peace award as “the world’s most prestigious prize.”

Is it also the most famous? Yes, unless that distinction belongs to the Oscar. In a single year, 2007, one man, Al Gore, won both awards. That will almost certainly never happen again. In addition to being the most prestigious or famous, the Nobel Peace Prize could well be the most problematic award. What is peace, anyway, and what kind of behavior advances its prospects? Who deserves to be crowned a “champion of peace”, and the world’s foremost? Desmond Tutu, the 1984 laureate, has said, “No sooner had I got the Nobel Peace Prize than I became an instant oracle. Virtually everything I had said before was now received with something like awe.” That tends to happen, true, for better or worse.

Over the generations, the Nobel Peace Prize has influenced how people think about peace. That is, the relevant committee not only makes judgments; it affects the very basis of judgment on this extremely important subject.

For this and other reasons, a study of the Nobel Peace Prize is a useful exercise. Two of the other reasons are these: Such a study gives you a neat, sweeping survey of the 20th century, for the prizes begin in 1901. And it introduces you to a vast and diverse cast of characters. Remember, this is a prize won by both Mother Teresa and Yasir Arafat.


he story of the Nobel begins with the testator, the man who established the prizes in his will, Alfred Nobel—as interesting and impressive as almost anyone who has ever received one of his prizes. He lived from 1833 to 1896. He was a Swede, but if ever there was a man of the world, he was. He did most of his growing up in Russia’s imperial capital, St. Petersburg. In his adult life, he traveled everywhere and constantly, looking after his empire of businesses. Victor Hugo called him “Europe’s wealthiest vagabond.” He was a brilliant chemical engineer, probably a genius. Dynamite is only the best known of his inventions. He was also a brilliant entrepreneur, and a writer whose letters are worth reading in any generation.

It is widely believed, and always has been, that Nobel willed his prize for peace out of guilt over his invention of dynamite: It was a way of atoning. As near as we can tell, this is nonsense. It’s hard to be sure what is in a man’s head and heart, but we know that Nobel was proud of his explosives, believing them to be of great utility to mankind. They built what today we call infrastructure: the St. Gotthard Tunnel through the Swiss Alps, for example, and the Central Pacific Railroad in the United States. He said, “There is nothing in the world which cannot be misunderstood or abused.”

Moreover, he was a firm believer—sometimes a naïve believer—in deterrence: the power of terrible weapons to deter or even eliminate war. In a famous statement, he wrote to his friend Bertha von Suttner, a leading peace campaigner, “My factories may well put an end to war before your congresses. For in the day that two armies are capable of destroying each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil before a war and dismiss their troops.”

In his will, Nobel instructed that the peace prize go to “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.” Members of the Nobel committee in Oslo have often construed these terms with great liberality, or ignored them altogether. They have given the peace prize to an agronomist (Norman Borlaug), a microbanker (Muhammad Yunus), a global-warming campaigner (Gore) and others we might not think of as peacemakers.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee is composed of five persons, all Norwegian, who are elected by the Norwegian legislature. You can think of it this way: The Norwegian people elect the legislature, and the legislature elects the committee—therefore, the committee is a reflection of the Norwegian people and their political culture (which is, of course, strongly social-democratic).

Since 1901, the prize has been given 92 times. In 19 years, it was not given, for various reasons. (To take the most dramatic: During World War II, members of the committee were scattered.) A hundred and one individuals have received the prize, and twenty organizations. One person has won the peace prize plus another Nobel prize—that was Linus Pauling, who was the chemistry laureate for 1954 and the peace laureate for 1962. Pauling also won the Lenin Peace Prize, née the Stalin Peace Prize, from the Soviet government. He said it meant more to him than the Nobel. Two other Nobel peace laureates won the Stalin/Lenin prize: Seán MacBride, an Irish UN man, and Nelson Mandela.

More laureates have come from America than from any other nation: 21. These include three sitting Presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson and Obama), one former President (Carter), two former Vice Presidents (Charles G. Dawes, who served under Coolidge, and Gore), five sitting or former Secretaries of State and at least two heroes: Borlaug—whose innovations fed multitudes—and Martin Luther King.

The committee gives its prize for any number of reasons: to alter the course of a conflict; to promote a cause; to make a moral statement; to rebuke a disfavored leader or nation; to bathe an individual in glory. It can be a powerful weapon, the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1987, the committee confided to Óscar Arias, the Costa Rican President, that they were giving him the award to use against Ronald Reagan. “Reagan was responsible for my prize”, Arias told Robert Kagan. It would not be the last time a conservative American President was “responsible” for a Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1983, the prize was a powerful weapon indeed. That year, the laureate was Lech Walesa (a fan of Reagan, unlike Arias). He told me that, without the Nobel Peace Prize, his Solidarity movement in Poland could never have succeeded. “There was no wind blowing into Poland’s sail. It’s hard to say what would have happened if I had not won the prize. The Nobel prize blew a strong wind into our sail.”

The prize has always been controversial, right from the beginning. The inaugural prize (1901) was shared by Frédéric Passy and Henry Dunant. Passy was a grand old man of the European peace movement, a perfectly kosher winner. But Dunant was something else: He was the father of the Red Cross, and thus a humanitarian. What did humanitarianism have to do with peace? The prize was supposed to go to those who would prevent or abolish war, went the criticism, not to someone who was putting a bandage over war, or improving its laws. Nobel’s old friend, Bertha von Suttner, was outraged. Making war “better”, she said, was like turning down the temperature when you were boiling a man in oil.

From 1901 to 1914, when World War I started, the prize went mainly to the Frédéric Passy type: leaders of the organized peace movement, full-time pacifists. It went to Suttner, for example, in 1905. By the way, “pacifist” was no slur in those days. It would acquire an odor only later. In the years before World War II (roughly speaking), if you had said to someone, “Hey, you’re a pacifist!” he might well have responded, “Of course I am. What are you, a militarist?” “Pacifism” was posed against “militarism.”

There was an exception to the Nobel pattern in the earliest years: In 1906, the prize went to Theodore Roosevelt, the first statesman to win the award. He won it chiefly for his mediation in the Russo-Japanese War (a mediation that resulted in the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905). This award was galling to many, and remains so even today. A peace prize for TR, this Rough Rider, this wielder of the big stick, this shouter of “Bully!”? In his home country, the New York Times thought “a broad smile illuminated the face of the globe” when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to “the most warlike citizen of these United States.”

In 110 years of Nobel lectures, Roosevelt’s is the most unlike a Nobel peace lecture. Have a brief sample:

Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy.

Have one more brief sample:

Moreover, and above all, let us remember that words count only when they give expression to deeds, or are to be translated into them. The leaders of the Red Terror prattled of peace while they steeped their hands in the blood of the innocent; and many a tyrant has called it peace when he has scourged honest protest into silence.

Shortly after the Great War, the prize went to Roosevelt’s political arch-nemesis, President Wilson, who won for his promotion of the League of Nations (never mind that his own country would never join it). In 1930, the Norwegian Prime Minister, speaking at the Nobel ceremony, called the League “the greatest, the most powerful, the most remarkable institution acting for peace that the world has ever known.” In 1959, a full two decades after the second war began, the chairman of the committee said, “Those who never knew the years after the First World War will find it hard to realize how many hopes were pinned to the League of Nations.”

Between the wars, there was one overriding sentiment, expressed at Nobel ceremonies as elsewhere: A second war had to be prevented, for Europe would not survive one. A 1921 laureate, Christian Lange, spoke of the need for a dramatically improved internationalism: “It is a matter of nothing less than our civilization’s ‘to be or not to be.’” Speaking at the ceremony in 1926, Fridtjof Nansen said, “Even if the next war is no worse than the last, I believe it will destroy our European civilization. But of course the next war will not be like the last. It will be incomparably worse.”

Lange and Nansen were both Norwegian, the only Norwegians ever to have won this Norwegian-given prize. They won in back-to-back years: 1921 and 1922. Lange was a diplomat and “peace professional”, and Nansen was everything: an athlete, a scientist, an explorer, a diplomat, an executive, a humanitarian—one of the most talented people of the 20th century.

The 1926 ceremony at which he spoke honored three “men of Locarno”, three foreign ministers who had shaped the Locarno Treaties of 1925: Sir Austen Chamberlain of Britain, Aristide Briand of France and Gustav Stresemann of Germany. The treaties were meant to tie up some loose ends of Versailles and stave off the second war. “Peace at Last”, said the Times of London. “France and Germany Ban War Forever”, said the New York Times. In his Nobel lecture, Stresemann said

I do not think of Locarno only in terms of its consequences for Germany. Locarno means much more to me. It is the achievement of lasting peace on the Rhine . . . . Treuga Dei, the peace of God, shall reign where for centuries bloody wars have raged.

Some prizes look very silly today. But we should remember that they did not look silly at the time, even to people who were quite sober, thoughtful and realistic.


mmediately after World War II, Cordell Hull, who had been FDR’s Secretary of State, won the prize. He won it chiefly for his shaping of the UN Charter. The Nobel committee would repeatedly reward the UN and its agencies and its personalities, as it had rewarded the League, and, before that, the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In 1961, the committee gave the prize (for 1960, “reserved” for a year) to Albert John Lutuli, the magnificent anti-apartheid leader in South Africa. For the first time, the committee was addressing an internal struggle: a freedom struggle in one country, not a conflict between nations. There would be two more South African Nobels, or anti-apartheid Nobels. These were the prize to Tutu in 1984 and the prize shared by Mandela and F.W. de Klerk in 1993, as apartheid was ending.

There were two anti-Soviet Nobels. The struggle against Soviet Communism lasted as long as Soviet Communism itself: from 1917 to 1991. But in this period, the Nobel committee honored just two participants in this general struggle: Andrei Sakharov in 1975 and Walesa eight years later. 

In 1973 came the most controversial and condemned Nobel of all: the one shared by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. They were given the award for the Paris Agreement, a ceasefire in the Vietnam War. What people object to, by and large, is the half of the award going to the American Secretary of State, not the half going to the envoy from North Vietnam’s government, a mass-murdering totalitarian dictatorship. Tom Lehrer said famously that “political satire became obsolete” once Kissinger shared the prize. Different people are outraged or flummoxed by different things.

The 1990 prize to Mikhail Gorbachev is an interesting one (as they all are, really). Was the choice of Gorbachev abominable or wonderful? Those who say “abominable” cite Gorbachev’s repression in the Baltics, in early 1991—extremely light repression, by Soviet standards. The other point of view is well expressed by John Lewis Gaddis in his 2005 book, The Cold War: A New History. Gorbachev “chose love over fear”, he writes, “violating Machiavelli’s advice for princes and thereby ensuring that he ceased to be one. It made little sense in traditional geopolitical terms. But it did make him the most deserving recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize.”

I like Walesa’s take on the matter. Gorbachev “had the instruments of rape”, he told me, “and did not use them.” He could have done in Eastern Europe what his predecessors had done—in October 1956, for example, or in August 1968—but he refused. “Every male has the instrument of rape”, said Walesa. “Should we all be awarded Nobel prizes for not raping?” In any event, the prize has been awarded for worse reasons.

In 1992, Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan peasant-revolutionary-memoirist, won the prize. That year was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of, or encounter with, the New World. The committee gave the award to the most famous indigene the Americas had to offer. In 1994, Yasir Arafat went to Oslo—which, for many, says all one needs to know about the Nobel Peace Prize. But it’s well to remember that Arafat did not win the prize alone. He shared it with two Israeli statesmen: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. They won for the 1993 accords negotiated in the committee’s own city. And Peres went so far as to say, in his Nobel lecture, that Arafat’s share in the prize was “fitting.” This 1994 award is something to argue about, at length. In Israel, a quip was heard: Since when is a whole peace prize awarded for just a fraction of a peace?

When announcing the award for Jimmy Carter in 2002, the Nobel chairman made a noteworthy statement to the press. He said that the award “should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current Administration has taken. It’s a kick in the leg to all who follow the same line as the United States.” The Administration was that of George W. Bush. And the chairman was referring to Bush’s “line” in the War on Terror. “Kick in the leg” is a Norwegian way of saying “poke in the eye” or “slap in the face.” There would be other awards that involved a kick in the leg to the 43rd President.

In fact, you could say there were as many as five: the Nobel in 2001 (announced shortly after 9/11) to the United Nations and its then-Secretary General, Kofi Annan; the 2002 award to Carter; the 2005 award to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its then-Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei; the 2007 award to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with Al Gore; and the 2009 award to the new President, Barack Obama. These were not strictly anti-Bush Nobels. But they were Nobels that contained a reaction to Bush.

Why did Obama win? In brief, because he was an American President after the committee’s own heart, a man who apparently shared their worldview. If George W. Bush was their nightmare President—and he was—Obama was their dream President. If they could design an American President from scratch, he would turn out much like Barack Obama. Their Nobel to him blessed a new day. But what did the committee think of Obama’s Nobel lecture, in which some saw Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism? This is not necessarily a committee point of view.


t is a truth universally acknowledged that commentary on the Nobel Peace Prize says at least as much about the commentator as it does about the prize. With that granted, let me say what I regard as five fundamental errors made by the committee since 1901. First has been an almost blind belief in disarmament: the belief that the fewer arms you have, the more peace you’ll have. There is scant evidence of this, and much to the contrary.

Second has been a near-absolute attachment to the United Nations (and its predecessors). At the 1988 ceremony, the Nobel chairman said, “It becomes clearer and clearer that what has to be done to secure the future for new generations has to be done together. Our determination has to be channeled into the United Nations. This is the best hope for the future of the world—indeed its only hope.” Some of us regard these words as a very long way from reality.

Third was a moral equivalence during the Cold War: the view that there was nothing much to choose between the democratic West and the Communist East. In 1982, the committee gave the Nobel to Sweden’s Alva Myrdal and Mexico’s Alfonso García Robles for their disarmament efforts at the UN. Myrdal said, “I am particularly gratified that on this occasion the award goes to two citizens of nations which are both denuclearized and non-allied.” The committee was of the school that said there were two sets of rights: the “political rights” found in the West, such as those to speech and assembly; and the “social rights” found in the East, such as those to food and shelter. Yet which bloc was better off materially, not just “politically”?

Fourth has been a willingness to say peace, peace, when there is none. Embarking on a round of diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Tony Blair quipped to George W. Bush, “If I win the Nobel Peace Prize, you will know I have failed.” It was just a quip, yes, but it must be the most stinging criticism of the peace prize ever uttered.

And fifth, the most recent error: the belief that poverty causes terrorism. For one thing, that belief does a horrible injustice to the poor, most of whom have never had a murderous thought in their lives, much less acted on it. Also, there is, again, virtually no evidence for this belief. 

I now propose a parlor game: What have been the best and worst Nobel prizes? In considering the best, allow me to lay aside the heroes of democracy, human rights and freedom—the Lutulis and Sakharovs. Allow me to lay aside, too, the humanitarians and saints. Mention the name Mother Teresa, and just about all conversation stops. When it comes to “fraternity between nations”—the key term of Nobel’s will, where the peace prize is concerned—you can’t beat Sadat and Begin in 1978. Egypt had triggered four wars against Israel. For more than 30 years now, the Egyptian-Israeli peace, though cold, has held. Can it continue to do so? If the new Egyptian government renounces the treaty, the greatness and bravery of Sadat’s initiative will become even more apparent.

As for the worst awards, I would cite, as a class, the disarmers, both before World War II and during the Cold War: the unilateralists, the freeze-niks, the accommodationists. I think of Arthur Henderson, the British Labourite and friend of Moscow who won in 1934. I further think of Myrdal and several like her, in the later decades. But a case can be made that the worst award of all is the 2005 award, to the IAEA and ElBaradei.

On the eve of the Gulf War in 1991, the IAEA assured the world that Iraq was in full compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (Saddam Hussein’s regime sat on the agency’s board of governors from 1980 to 1991.) After the war, the Director General of the time, Hans Blix, admitted, “It’s correct to say that the IAEA was fooled by the Iraqis.” For almost twenty years, the agency was also fooled by the Iranians, whose nuclear program we learned about from dissidents. Subsequently, ElBaradei seemed more interested in shielding Tehran from economic sanctions or military attack than in holding that regime to nuclear account. The IAEA, under his leadership, was grossly politicized.

You may not think that the IAEA and ElBaradei were as culpable, bumbling or harmful as I do. But the Nobel Peace Prize, the world’s most prestigious award, to them? Why? It seems clear to me that the committee was merely taunting the United States and its allies for finding no WMD stockpiles in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

In Washington and elsewhere, the mantra is still heard that the IAEA, and only the IAEA, got Iraq right in the run-up to the war. But as Ambassador Rolf Ekéus pointed out, in the first year of the war, stockpiles were never the issue—intentions and programs were.1 Hans Blix and later Charles Duelfer showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the intentions and programs existed. But thanks in part to the Nobel committee, and to the woeful public-relations skills of the Bush Administration, this truth lies buried.

The gutsiest award the committee has ever made, almost certainly, was the prize for 1935 to Carl von Ossietzky, a political prisoner of the Nazis. This risked a breach in Norwegian-German relations, and Norway was hoping to remain neutral in a second world war, as it had been in the first. Also gutsy was the 2010 award to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese political prisoner. For more than sixty years, the committee had passed over Chinese freedom figures, but at last they honored one. Would they ever honor a Cuban one? Highly doubtful. Armando Valladares, the ex-political prisoner sometimes called “the Cuban Solzhenitsyn”, remarked to me, “If the Cuban dictatorship were right-wing instead of left-wing, we would have won two or three Nobel prizes already.”

I suppose that, if I had a peacemaking ideal, among the laureates, it would be George C. Marshall, the 1953 winner: who confronted evil when it appeared, with arms, then went about bolstering the peace—through, for example, the Marshall Plan, or the European Recovery Program, as he was the only one to call it. He understood demilitarization and disarmament to be twin disasters for the democracies. Peace-destroying. He warned and worked against these things.

The Nobel Peace Prize can be a dismaying item, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee a dismaying body. But when they get it right, who can fail to applaud? At Nobel time, people like to recite a Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” They are indeed blessed, especially when the peace they make, or try for, is worthy of the name. 

1See Ekéus’s statement “Iraq’s Real Weapons Threat”, Washington Post, June 29, 2003.

Jay Nordlinger is senior editor of National Review and author of Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World (Encounter Books, 2012).