Why the Nobel Peace Prize isn’t very different from Miss Universe

World Peace? Sure. The Nobel Peace prize isn't that different from Miss Universe: ephemeral, arbitrary and, ultimately, banal.

Praveen Swami October 11, 2013 16:48:27 IST
Why the Nobel Peace Prize isn’t very different from Miss Universe

Henry Kissinger stood on that stage in Oslo in 1973, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing about a historic accord that had ended the Vietnam war. However the reality was, as the chair of the prize committee acknowledged, the war hadn't ended. In neighbouring Kampuchea, Kissinger was presiding over another war - carpet bombing that claimed over half a million lives, and perhaps as many through starvation and disease.

Kissinger's bombing campaign inexorably led, historians Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan have written, to a Maoist sunrise which in turn bred a genocide that claimed over 1.7 million lives.

Why the Nobel Peace Prize isnt very different from Miss Universe

Malala Yousufzai was hailed by the media as the strongest contender for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. AP.

“It was in that moment", the satirist Tom Lehrer wrote of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, "that satire died".

For all the prestige surrounding the Nobel Peace Prize, the sad truth is this: like Miss Universe pageants, it's ephemeral, arbitrary and, ultimately, banal. The reasons for this aren't hard to seek.

Unlike the real Nobel prizes, which are given out for the sciences, there are no rigorous criteria to guide us to a reliable appreciation of what human actions engender peace and which ones generate conflict. Political action, which is what all peacemaking is, can't even be judged by the aesthetic canons that guide literary taste. This problem is rendered all the more difficult by the fact that geopolitics rarely involves saints. It's just impossible, moreover, to tell close up to history where the chips of war and peace will finally fall.

To understand the Nobel Peace Prize, one has to grasp that it's not actually a prize for doing good. It is, instead, a medium to propagate what might broadly be called the North Atlantic moral aesthetic of politics. In 1905, Jørgen Løvland, Norway’s first foreign secretary, proclaimed that his country’s foreign policy “is not to have one.” That position reflected Norway’s post-independence neutralism, and Alfred Nobel’s own pacifism.

Political realism, though, soon reared its head. In 1906, the prize went to Theodore Roosevelt--even though Haldvan Koht, later Norway’s foreign minister, gave the award committee a considered determination that the US President was an unreconstructed hawk.

The New York Times wryly observed that the Peace Prize had gone "to the most warlike citizen of these United States".

It isn't that saints haven't won the prize, from time to time. The 1935 Nobel peace prize went to Carl von Ossietzky, a journalist who had been imprisoned for exposing illegal German rearmament. It generally passes unnoticed, though, that the debate over giving Mr Ossietzky the award was enmeshed with larger European foreign policy debates over how to deal with German fascism. Ossietzky got the prize because the European liberal-left wanted make an anti-fascist statement, not a serious judgment of his contribution to history.

Following Norway's liberation from Nazi Germany, the country abandoned neutrality and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO. Not surprisingly, several key awards went to anti-communist voices in the Soviet Bloc. The 1975 Prize went to Andrei Sakharov not because he had made radical contributions to world peace, but because he took on the Soviet Union. Lech Walesa picked in 1983 for the same reasons: not all trade unions staging strikes which paralysed entire countries, after all, were seen as equally praiseworthy.

From the committee’s point of view, though, Dr Kissinger’s efforts to seek a negotiated end to superpower conflict needed to be supported: such wars, after all, could have ended in a nuclear holocaust in Europe. Dr Kissinger was not being honoured for his resemblance to Mother Teresa.

Barack Obama's prize was probably awarded for ending the war in Iraq -- remember, Norway almost broke away from NATO over the issue in 2005.

The committee's deliberations are secret, so we have no way of knowing how Malala Yusufzai's contribution to world peace was gauged to be less significant than that of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons(OPCW). The OPCW is a technical organisation, meant to administer the global treaty that many hope will end in the dismantling of the world's chemical weapons stockpiles. It's staff are working to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons stockpile - which probably had something to do with the committee's decision, though the citation says the decision was for long-term work, not this one action.

Yusufzai has done stellar work with education and girls' rights in Pakistan, possibly motivating thousands of others to take a stand.

How do you possibly make a decision which activity is more important or courageous?

How do you objectively decide that the jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo has contributed more to world peace than the authoritarian Chinese state he opposes, which has lifted millions out of poverty? How do you decide, so close up to events, that the Islamist-leaning politician Tawakkul Karman is a voice of empowerment for women in West Asia, and not, as her critics contend, part of the problem? How do you decide that the European Union is a good thing, rather than a misguided failure?

The answer is simple: politics. Every prize of this kind is. All sorts of complex factors weigh into Miss Universe prizes that have nothing to do with the abstraction called 'beauty': the promotion of personal-care products and fashion in emerging markets, for example. The Nobel Peace Prize is, similarly, an instrument of propaganda for a particular vision of what the world should look like.

In December, a representative of the OPCW will stand on the same stage in Oslo and say she or he wants world peace. Those are nice words, so you should probably clap. Just remember, you've heard it before.

You heard it from Rene Cassin. From Albert John Lutuli. From Georges Pire. Yep, you don't remember who won the Miss Universe 1983 either, do you?

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