Nobel, Noble No More

The Nobel Peace Prize should promote peace, not merely recognize it

One has to wonder if the members of Norwegian Nobel Committee purposely try to select the most unlikely recipients for the Nobel Peace Prize. I doubt a single person predicted that the European Union would win the award on October 12, and the reaction following the announcement was near-universal puzzlement. On Twitter—the forum that passes for public opinion these days—jokes about the award quickly circulated. One user suggested that the EU should win the Prize in Chemistry for its austerity experiments in Greece.

Maybe we should come to expect odd choices from Oslo. The reaction to this year’s award feels eerily similar to that of three years ago, when the prize went to a newly elected and barely-tried President Obama. The Nobel Peace Prize increasingly seems like less of a clearly defined concept and more of a random lottery, and that’s truly a shame. By continuously selecting unconventional winners for the Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee both tarnishes the prestige of this unique award and fails to inspire change in places where it is needed.

In all fairness, it would be hard to claim that this year’s prize went to an undeserving recipient. Alfred Nobel intended that the award go to the person or organization “who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Europe certainly fits that description. Since the end of World War II, cooperation among European nations has transformed the continent from a landscape of recurring war to a place synonymous with peace and prosperity.

European merits aside, however, this year’s choice is still disquieting. By recognizing the long-term accomplishments of an entire continent, does the Nobel Committee make any difference in the world? With the EU in the grip of a crippling economic crisis that has pushed it to the brink of collapse, the award can be seen as a vote of confidence. However, it’s doubtful that a vote of confidence from a profoundly Eurosceptic country will affect the outcome of a situation dependent on economic forces of staggering magnitude.

Some might say that the point of the award is not to make a difference in the present world, but to recognize past achievements. Yet that misses the point entirely. The Nobel Prizes are often criticized for being too politicized, but peace, unlike literature or chemistry, is a fundamentally political concept. Whether the members of the deciding panel intend to make a political statement with the Peace Prize or not is irrelevant—the award will always be interpreted as such.

I, for one, find it absurd to think that one should recognize peace without actively promoting it. The members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee should realize that they are quite possibly the most influential activists in the world. With their votes, they can bring attention to issues that desperately need a spotlight. It’s disappointing to see the ability to do good squandered, but it’s even more frustrating to watch it happen time and time again.

In 2006, the prize went to Muhammed Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, for his revolutionary innovations in microfinance that have helped millions escape poverty. A praiseworthy figure indeed, but how exactly did he help resolve any sort of conflict? The following year, the prize went to Al Gore ’69 and the International Panel on Climate Change for promoting awareness of, well, climate change. For two years in a row, the award had only the slightest conceptual link to peace. Then came Obama’s 2009 award, and now Europe gets the prize. Clearly, strange is now the norm in Norway.

Who, then, should win the prize? There are countless dissidents and activists around the world who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of their convictions—people, for instance, like 2010’s recipient Liu Xiaobo, currently languishing in a Chinese jail cell for promoting human rights, or 1991’s honoree, Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. There are also many political actors that have genuinely made lasting contributions to world peace, like 2008’s recipient, Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, or 1987’s recipient, former Costa Rican President Óscar Arias Sánchez, who helped end a decade of war in Central America.

Clearly, the Nobel Peace Prize has never been intended for a specific category of individuals, nor should it be. Yet the spirit of the prize is threatened by choices that—as in the case of Al Gore—only marginally have to do with peace or that—as in the case of the EU—fail to encourage peace and merely celebrate it in a feeble manner. By announcing winners such as these, the Nobel committee casts itself in a doubtful light. And if next year we see a genuine winner, that person’s achievement will resonate a little less because we’ve become accustomed to greeting the committee’s announcement with skepticism, if not derision.

Jorge A. Araya ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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