Does the Nobel Peace Prize mean anything anymore?

The word ‘peace’ no longer seems to be an important criteria when judges award the prize.

Military acts by Nobel peace laureates may undermine the status of the prize, say analysts [AP]

Over the past couple of weeks, Barack Obama has gone from one controversy to another. First, he spiked his own followers with reckless calls for war, only to end up displeasing conservatives everywhere by agreeing to let Russia cut a deal with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, seemingly making the US look weak.

Not surprisingly, in his most hawkish moment since assuming the presidency in January 2009, calls for the Norwegian Nobel Committee to strip him of his Nobel Peace Prize have grown louder.

Obama is neither the first, nor probably the last US president to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. If anything, at least Obama is not yet irreversibly tainted by the blood of the people that his administration has killed during repeated imperialistic forays.

Yes, he has ordered numerous drone attacks, and for those who oppose military interventions of any kind, his administration’s policies towards Libya and Egypt have left much to be desired. Having said that, and this is where he’s different from someone such Daddy or Baby Bush, or their mentor Ronald Reagan: He hasn’t given in to the pressures to display the US army in some remote – likely oil rich – soil so that the weapons manufacturers, oil magnates, and Halliburton contractors can maximise their profits under the excuse of spreading democracy.

Think, for example, of Theodore Roosevelt, who, outside of the US, is mostly remembered for his famous corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and for his even more famous approach to international relations: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

And yes, you guessed right, Teddy Roosevelt got a Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, as he pursued some of his most imperialist and expansionist policies. And there were quite a few: Cuba in 1898, Nicaragua in 1900, Venezuela in 1902, Panama in 1903, the Dominican Republic in 1905, and Cuba again in 1906 – this time thanks to the Platt Amendment enforced on Cuba by the US as a condition for the recognition of independence in 1901, against widespread opposition in the island.

Perhaps indeed the ‘peace’ in the Nobel Peace Prize means something different to the Norwegian Committee in charge of awarding it every year, than it does to the rest of the world. Their sense of righteousness and their illusion of fairness are just precisely that, senses and illusions.

Of course, the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s fondness for offering peace awards to US presidents was not limited to Roosevelt. Soon after, Woodrow Wilson, possibly one of the most racist presidents in US history, who considered the Ku Klux Klan to be a “great and veritable empire”, and who did little to improve segregationist policies during the Jim Crow years, found himself receiving one of those. And so did Jimmy Carter, although in all fairness, Carter’s misdemeanours are child’s play when compared with those of Roosevelt and Wilson.

Peace, what peace?

Maybe it is all about the meaning of the term, and not about attaining real peace. Otherwise, how could these Norwegian eminences explain the above awards, and many others that have been given over the years? How to explain the awards bestowed on Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger for signing the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 that changed little or nothing for the Vietnamese people?

At least Le Duc Tho had the decency to decline the prize, which is more than Kissinger did. And since we are discussing another high profile US politician favoured by the Norwegians, let’s not forget that this is the man who orchestrated a vicious and intense foreign imperialist policy during his time as secretary of state. So much so, that he has been repeatedly accused of a vast collection of offences, including war crimes in Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus, East Timor and Indochina.

It is even more difficult to figure out how exactly Nobel Peace awards went to men like Yassir Arafat, Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Make no mistake, although all three improved the bilateral relations between Palestine and Israel, all failed to reach a long-lasting deal that would bring peace to the region; peace being the key word here, of course.

Some other questionable Nobel Peace Prizes have gone to Mikhail Gorbachev for ending communist rule in the USSR and bringing a wild, sort of undemocratic capitalism to Russia. Although the changes he implemented did bring some freedoms to the Russians, it is all too obvious that peace, and for that matter, justice, equality, and democracy were never achieved by him or any of his two successors.

And what to say about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose willingness to associate with a murderer such as Jean-Claude Duvalier, or to praise Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha are well-known. She, too, received a Nobel Peace Prize.

And, of course, all this while some other relevant figures of the 20th century who actually made a difference were completely overlooked. That list of notable omissions would include the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, among many others.  

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Some of the awards over the years, however, were bestowed upon what we could consider rightful recipients. From Martin Luther King Jr to Nelson Mandela, not forgetting Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi, many other honest and dedicated men and women whose efforts to disarm entire nations and to bring peace to various regions of the planet have been recognised by the Norwegian committee.

However, the decision of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the United Nations in 2001 for their work for a better organised (whatever that means) and more peaceful world, barely a week after it supported the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks is nothing short of ludicrous.

And what to say about conferring the award to the European Union last year, to an institution tainted by accusations of corruption and which is in the middle of a maelstrom of  bailouts involving intrinsically anti-democratic EU-imposed leaders (eg Mario Monte in Italy and Lucas Papademos in Greece)?

Perhaps indeed the “peace” in the Nobel Peace Prize means something different to the Norwegian committee in charge of awarding it every year, than it does it to the rest of the world. Their sense of righteousness and their illusion of fairness are just precisely that, senses and illusions.

Or maybe the prize, named after Alfred Nobel, a well-known arms manufacturer and inventor of dynamite, who allegedly decided to leave his money to this charitable trust after a French newspaper, mistaking him for his deceased brother, referred to him as a “merchant of death”.

Maybe the Nobel Peace prizes are meant to represent a bit of both Nobels; the late one, concerned with his posthumous image, and the younger one, interested in selling explosives on a large scale around Europe – a pioneer of today’s large multinational arms manufacturers and of the spread of war across the world. Perhaps, after all, there’s no reason to take that Nobel Peace Prize from Obama.  

Dr Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.