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Not So Noble: The Politics Behind the Nobel Peace Prize

President Obama receives Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo Photo: MFA Norway/ Per Thrana

In a jaw-dropping announcement last month, it emerged that Donald Trump was inexplicably nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. An anonymous nominator from the US submitted a letter to the Nobel committee, arguing that Trump should receive the award for “his vigorous peace through strength ideology.” This episode highlights the flaws in the Nobel nomination process. Contrary to popular opinion, the Nobel Peace Prize is not an apolitical honor, but instead deeply rooted in international politics.

The year-long Nobel selection process is complex and extremely opaque. Initially, the Nobel committee will receive nominations from “qualified nominators,” a list that includes members of national assemblies and governments, members of international courts, relevant academics or professors, and previous recipients of the prize. Then the Norwegian Nobel Committee, made up of five members elected by the Norwegian parliament, will consider the nominations and compose a shortlist. Once this shortlist is compiled, the members are given some time to mull it over and then select the winner through a majority vote. In essence, the most significant international prize for peacemaking and activism lies in the hands of just five Norwegians — and the committee is not known for its transparency.

Of course, the Nobel Peace Prize is no stranger to controversy. The award, limited to only three recipients a year, is by nature subjective, but even so, its recipients have often seemed questionable. One such provocative choice was Henry Kissinger, who won the prize in 1973. Kissinger was selected as a joint winner with North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho for brokering a ceasefire in the Vietnam War. This seemed a dubious choice, particularly as the US was still involved in carpet-bombing neighboring Cambodia. Kissinger is now one of the most polarizing figures in 20th century history, evoking conflicts and American interventionism rather than peace. Even at the time, he certainly wasn’t a popular or unifying choice, reflecting the fact that the Nobel Prize is not always representative of the wishes of the global community.

Although the Nobel Prize is steeped in years of contention, the political motivations behind the selection of recipients have become increasingly evident over time. This became especially clear with the selection of Barack Obama in 2009. Obama had barely been in office for a year when he was awarded the prize; in fact, his nomination came a mere 12 days into his term. He may have made some groundbreaking decisions in those early days, but he certainly didn’t qualify as “the person who has done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations,” as specified in Alfred Nobel’s will.

In selecting Obama, the Nobel Committee made an emblematic choice that had little to do with achievement and much to do with hope. It served two very distinct purposes. Firstly, analysts have speculated that the award was a symbolic rejection of the internationally disliked Bush administration. The fact that Obama received the award so early on in his term as President seemed to underscore the distinction between the two leaders and point to a resurgence of American popularity in the global sphere. Secondly, rather than reward past achievements, the Nobel Committee wished to spur on Obama’s attempts to increase global peace and stability. By granting him the Nobel Prize, they hoped to set a high standard of conflict resolution and demilitarization for his entire presidency.

In fact, American politics have often been prominent in Nobel decisions. Besides Obama’s victory, Jimmy Carter won the prize in 2002 in an earlier effort by the Committee to rebuke the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Nobel Committee Chairman Gunnar Berge even went as far as stating the award was “a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken”.

Similarly, geopolitical symbolism has been pivotal in the selection of other Nobel honorees. The 2014 Peace Prize was shared by Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai and Indian children’s rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi. In the announcement, the Nobel Committee was careful to highlight that the award was shared by “an Indian and a Pakistani”, crossing national and religious lines between two rival states. Thus, the scope of the award has expanded from simply honoring peaceful activism to symbolically portraying an idealized vision for the future.

The Peace Prize has evolved in other ways since it was first conceived in 1895. According to the prize’s official website, it is primarily awarded for work in four categories: arms control and disarmament, peace negotiations, democracy and human rights, and work to create a more peaceful world. While most recipients have obviously fallen into one of these categories, it seems as if the Nobel Committee has expanded its scope since the turn of the millennium.

The expansion was most visible in 2004, when the Peace Prize was awarded to Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai. Maathai, who was known for her dedicated work on environmental conservation and women’s rights, hardly fits into the definition of the Prize, which emphasized “the fraternity between nations.” This event heralded a marked expansion from the initial four categories to honor any work that seemed to benefit humankind. Specifically, the award seems to have added a fifth category, fighting climate change and environmental degradation. Aside from Maathai, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the award in 2007 for their environmental work.

The Nobel Committee has not only expanded its scope, but its choices have also begun to diverge from early precedents. Many Peace Prize recipients used to fit a particular mold: Like Muhammad Yunus and Aung San Suu Kyi, they were often under-recognized world leaders or activists with decades of experience in advocacy. This seems to have shifted slightly in the last decade. While we still have recipients who adhere to this profile, many more seem like high-profile figures. This is particularly apparent in the case of Malala Yousafzai, who was a teenager with only a few years of activism under her belt. Her victory, however, was cheered around the world because it reflected a modern fixation — freedom from religious extremism. Likewise, Obama seemed to be chosen as much for his unifying message and global appeal as for his more tangible achievements.

All of this begs the question: Is the Nobel Prize selling out to the trappings of popularity and public approval? The short answer seems to be yes, but the reality is more nuanced. With the rise of globalization and social media campaigns, activists from around the globe can have their stories become viral in an instant. The Nobel Committee has been forced to adapt to the newly viral nature of activism, leading to many of these decisions. In recent years, gambling sites have decided to take advantage of the fascination with the prize, offering odds on possible winners. Internet campaign communities have also become involved, creating petitions for the public to nominate potential candidates. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Nobel Committee has evolved to take on a more public-oriented image.

But as the Nobel Peace Prize broadens its scope to suit its new mass appeal and tries to incentivize future achievements rather than just reward past exploits, it runs the risk of losing its legitimacy. It is still the preeminent international award for activists and diplomats working towards world peace, but its position is not as secure as it was a decade ago. The prize has become fodder for comedians and satirists, and has even launched a spinoff: the “Ig Nobel Awards,” presented every year at Harvard. Since much of the Nobel Prize’s power and relevance stems from public perception and respect, this could work to undermine its prestige in the years to come.

The Nobel Peace Prize is an essential part of international activism and peacemaking efforts, shining a global spotlight on neglected issues and subtly shaping the convictions of millions. It must be viewed, however, as a product of politics rather than an anti-political or impartial honor. With that in mind, the 2016 selection process becomes all the more interesting. Whatever the Nobel Committee ultimately decides, one can be sure that it will reflect the shifting political affinities at the time.


About the Author

Mili Mitra '18 is an International Relations concentrator and a senior staff writer for BPR.