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The Great Prize

by Victor Davis Hanson

Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, by Jay Nordlinger (Encounter, 400 pp., $27.99)

What went wrong with the Nobel Peace Prize?

The same is often asked of the United Nations, another godly enterprise that sometimes proves less than human. Certainly, the luster of the “most famous and controversial prize in the world” seems to have been tarnished in recent years. The 2002 winner, Jimmy Carter, opportunistically campaigned for the award. He did that mostly by trying to embarrass sitting U.S. presidents, whether Bill Clinton, by undercutting his efforts to isolate North Korea, or George W. Bush, by venomously attacking him over Iraq. The latter machinations were cited approvingly by the prize’s chief judge, Gunnar Berge, who praised Carter’s back-dealing as a much-needed “kick in the leg” to Bush.

So much for any disinterested evaluation of quantifiable criteria. Indeed, European anger at Bush may also have helped Mohamed ElBaradei, the international nuclear-arms watchdog, to win in 2005, after his fierce criticism of the American effort in Iraq, and his serial assurances that Iran, contrary to the Bush administration’s protestations, was not pursuing a nuclear weapon. Loud animosity toward Bush proved a sort of Nobel talisman in 2007, as well: In the old pre-recessionary and pre-Climategate days, the Nobel judges awarded Al Gore (“Bush lied!”) the prize for his global-warming activism — and perhaps also in recognition that he had unfairly lost the presidency in 2000 to Bush only through the peculiarities of the American Electoral College. Many Americans see these politically driven awards, granted to those who either have done little to further world peace, or a lot to disrupt it, as a sort of betrayal of a noble institution, in contrast to the less controversial and more deserving early-20th-century prize winners.

In this evenhanded, original, and engaging history of the 110 years of Alfred Nobel’s peace prize — the first co-winners were the pacifist Frédéric Passy and the humanitarian Henry Dunant in 1901 — Jay Nordlinger demonstrates that such current popular impressions are only in part true.

Nordlinger reminds us that on a few recent occasions there have been some stellar, generally beloved winners. By any global consensus Andrei Sakharov (1975), Anwar Sadat (1978), Mother Teresa (1979), Lech Walesa (1983), Elie Wiesel (1986), and the Dalai Lama (1989) clearly deserved the award. Nordlinger also points out that political controversy is not just a recent stain on the Peace Prize. The awarding has always reflected a sort of hard-left, naïve utopianism embedded deeply within the communitarian culture of 20th-century Scandinavia. The 1934 winner, Arthur Henderson, was a loud apologist for the Soviet Union, whose recent mass savagery had been well known to Henderson and the judges. Indeed, three Nobel Peace laureates — Linus Pauling, Sean MacBride, and Nelson Mandela — were also proud recipients of the Soviet Union’s rival Lenin Prize.

Nordlinger accounts for these missteps by noting that the Nobel Peace Prize committee (“Think . . . of the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley”) was always faced with two ambiguities in its charter — really not more than a brief aside in Nobel’s brief will (“a sparse document”). The judges never quite knew what the originator, the pioneer inventor and father of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, had envisioned as the proper criteria for his peace prizes. Nobel wrote and spoke both as an idealist who thought that highlighting the work of pacifists might help end war itself, and yet also, often, as a cynic and a realist, who scoffed at just those haughty dreamers who assumed their good intentions might eliminate something so ancient and deeply rooted within human nature.

Also, Nobel never quite defined the proper profile of a Peace Prize winner. Was it envisioned as an honor for well-meaning statesmen (e.g., Theodore Roosevelt or Mikhail Gorbachev), idealistic activists (Klas Arnoldson), writers or philosophers (Norman Angell), religious figures (Desmond Tutu), or international officials (Kofi Annan)? Ostensibly “peace” meant the absence of war. But if today the committee has expanded that definition to include everything from climate and nutrition to social activism and environmentalism, the vagueness again derives from the lack of any specific directive from Nobel himself.

Nordlinger notes that, oddly enough, Americans have been treated well by the committee. While no one would expect the Norwegians to have granted a conservative Herbert Hoover a prize for his efforts at organizing post-war European food relief, much less a Ronald Reagan for helping to end the Cold War, it did honor Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Frank Kellogg, Charles Dawes, Cordell Hull, George Marshall, and Henry Kissinger for their diplomacy in concluding wars or helping war-torn societies — as well as activists and internationalists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Bunche.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about the Norwegian judges is not just that on occasion, out of confusion or through ideological prejudice, they have made controversial appointments; after all, lapses of judgment and unfairness are inherent in any awards process. The real problem, rather, is that at times the Nobel committee has blessed truly repellent figures, whose lives were deeply entwined in terrorism and state-sanctioned mass murder. Such were the Palestinian terrorist Yasser Arafat and the North Vietnamese Stalinist Le Duc Tho.

Untruth and hatred at times have been synonymous with the prize. Rigoberta Menchú Tum, an indigenous Guatemalan, Castro supporter, and human-rights activist, won the 1992 prize largely on the basis of a supposedly inspirational autobiography (I, Rigoberta Menchú). The “memoir” later turned out to have been ghostwritten by Westerners and only loosely based on Menchú’s activism, the details of which were in many places deliberately falsified. The 2004 winner, African environmentalist Wangari Maathai, went on record alleging that the AIDS virus was the creation of nefarious Westerners intent on wiping out black Africans. The Catholic lay leader, author, and Castro aficionado Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who won in 1980, later claimed that the United States was guilty of “state terrorism” for going into Afghanistan after al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and compared George W. Bush to Hitler. A 1976 winner, Irish peace activist Betty Williams, publicly seethed, “I would love to kill George Bush.” Nordlinger’s sober and judicious review of these travesties, presented sine ira et studio, is all the more damning for his understatement.

Nordlinger writes in an accessible, sometimes journalistic style, without footnotes or bibliography. No matter: His survey of Peace Prize winners, and of the politics and ideology behind the awards, is a product of an immense amount of research, and reflects a careful organization and tone. He has a special gift of irony, and the more dispassionately he narrates the last 30 years of the award, the more we grow outraged — while somehow not being surprised, given that we learn that daydreaming and fantasy have always played prominent roles in selecting winners.

Nordlinger is sympathetic to Alfred Nobel, for both his admirably lived life and his hopes to put his fortune to some good use beyond the grave. He offers some wise recommendations to the Nobel Committee, ranging from returning to their earlier custom of not necessarily awarding a prize each year (given the rarity of effective global humanitarians) and avoiding celebrities, to distinguishing concrete efforts at promoting peace from showboating, cheap pacifism. In his careful analysis of more than a century of often mistaken notions about what achieves peace, Nordlinger might have more explicitly reminded us how, in fact, wars are usually prevented or shortened through military preparedness, eternal vigilance, strong defenses, and the alliances of like-minded and concerned democracies.

Si vis pacem, para pacem (“If you want peace, then prepare for peace”) has long been a sanctimonious slogan of pacifists, a sort of neat inversion of the Roman Vegetius’s ancient warning about the need for deterrence, Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum (“Therefore he who desires peace, let him prepare for war”). History has, of course, borne out the wisdom of Vegetius, not the dreams of the admirable 1929 Nobel Peace laureate, American Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, whose efforts to “outlaw” war were soon to be made a mockery of by Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. After reviewing a century of laureates and collating their efforts with events of the age, I think a better modern adaptation of Vegetius might have read something like, Si vis bellum, para pacem (“If you want a war, then prepare for peace”).

Nordlinger ends his engrossing account with the story of the near-surrealistic granting of the 2009 Peace Prize to American president Barack Obama, after he had been in office less than a year. Europe, of course, was infatuated with the idea of an Obama presidency, as a sort of long-overdue rebuke of twice-elected Texan George W. Bush. Still, when pressed, the embarrassed committee could cite no real achievement of the first-year president, who had had only a brief, and rather undistinguished, career in the U.S. Senate. Finally, it awkwardly hemmed and hawed that the award was to be seen as encouragement of Obama’s pacifist rhetoric and lofty visions of world peace.

In fact, once again the award was meant to send a signal to the world’s most powerful nation that it would be punished or praised according to the degree to which it paid lip service to modern Europe’s postmodern, post-national notions of global social justice. That the post-racial Obama had opposed the Iraq War, trashed the Bush-Cheney antiterrorism protocols, and promised a new, “reset” foreign policy was good enough. Apparently the committee thought in 2009 that Obama’s next three years would demonstrate that the past Bush belligerency had unnecessarily made enemies out of otherwise misunderstood nations such as Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Bashar Assad’s Syria, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

As idealistic as Nobel’s original dreams were, the attempted reification of those principles has proven largely a more-than-century-long disappointment. That the Nobel Peace Prize was denied to Mahatma Gandhi, but awarded to Barack Obama, sort of says it all.

– Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.

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