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Theos Team Blog

In Defence of the Flawed Nobel Peace Prize

11th October 2017

There is perhaps some irony that no announcement of a Nobel Peace Prize seems to happen without provoking some sort of argument and confrontation. Each year there are complaints that someone’s favourite worthy cause has been overlooked for another, and each year there are accusations of political and ideological bias.

This year was a case in point. The winners, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, no doubt do fantastic work. How much they can claim credit for the fact that no one has felt the need to indiscriminately destroy vast numbers of defenceless civilians with nuclear weapons since the Americans felt that political and military expediency outweighed those concerns (twice) in 1945, is perhaps a moot point. Their work was not really the point. This was a clear public rebuke to the (nuclear) sabre rattling of the North Koreans and Donald Trump. Is that a sort of ideological bias and politicised interference? Certainly, though one I’d be inclined to support.

This year’s coverage has not been helped by the fact that it has been a pretty tough few years for Nobel peace laureates. One former winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is accused of culpability in the genocidal elimination of the Rohingya Muslims. Among more recent winners the EU is losing one member, and seems to have no idea how to respond to violent confrontations in Spain/Catalonia, or to the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Barack Obama followed up his victory with a foreign policy largely indistinguishable from his predecessor beyond an even greater obsession with unmanned drone killings. He is now watching his legacy unravelled by a successor who has made it far easier to purchase assault rifles and seems hell bent on provoking war with North Korea. Juan Manuel Santos’s peace deal in Colombia fell through in the public vote (though a revised version has now passed). It’s a good thing Malala seems to be flourishing or we’d have to begin to wonder if there isn’t a curse attached to the medal.

Beyond these various controversies, however, the charge of ideological bias is interesting, because it is, of course, entirely accurate. Any assessment of what makes a good peacemaker is going to rely on some philosophical and ideological conception of what the most effective means to secure peace looks like. Blessed are the peacemakers, so the Beatitudes and secular Nobel committee agree, but quite what makes someone a peacemaker is less obvious.

Some definitions are uncontroversial. A person who defuses an active conflict by their actions (Mandela and de Klerk, winners in 1993, for example, redrew the political rules and refused to take the roads that had proliferated conflict in the past) is a peacemaker in anyone’s eyes. Such moments, however, when someone is able to neutralise an ongoing conflict by their actions, are rare.

Other possible peacemakers would be more controversial. Can someone be described as a peacemaker if they actively promote a confrontation in order to prevent a worse situation down the line? These are far more difficult examples, and none have yet been awarded the Nobel. In the world of counter-factual history, would a sharp military intervention have killed off the Third Reich before the full horrors of the Second World War and the Final Solution came to pass? Would Chamberlain have been able to promise “peace in our time” without being remembered as an appeaser of evil? Perhaps David Cameron’s proposed intervention in Syria would have turned the tide and stemmed the (still on-going) conflict. Or maybe it would have been his own version of Blair’s disastrous Iraq misadventure. Knowing the impact is a difficult science.

Most Nobel winners fall into neither of those two camps, but instead are awarded to bodies or individuals that work to create the circumstances conducive to peace. This is based on such qualities as the committee believes will generate a peaceful world. So, for example, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the prize for their environmental campaigning. Others, including this year’s winners were awarded it for work campaigning against particular types of weapons. The EU’s efforts at fostering international solidarity and development received the award in 2012.

The Nobel committee embody an internationalist, social democratic mindset, and the circumstances they put forward as creating their utopian peaceful society reflect that. A different philosophy might have argued that a military alliance in NATO was no less helpful than the EU in guaranteeing European peace. There are still advocates who believe that nuclear weapons themselves guarantee a level of peace. Other might suggest that it is tied globalised economies that are deserving of a prize. In International Relations theory there is the much discussed “Golden Arches Theory”, originally suggested in 1999 by Thomas Friedman. The theory is based on the provocative observation that no two countries with a McDonald’s had ever fought a war against one another since they first got their restaurant. Friedman uses this as an example of the idea that closely tied capitalist economies will create peace because it is more in their own economic best interests. The Russian invasion of Ukraine put paid to the specific McDonald’s example, but the wider theory still has its supporters. No one at Nobel has yet seemed to feel drawn to giving McDonald’s or the global capitalist elite the peace prize, but who’s to say whether they haven’t had more of an impact than a nuclear weapons campaign?

The problem with acknowledging our supposed peacemakers – whether those who stop a conflict or those who create the circumstances to prevent future conflicts – is precisely that peace is an aim which is almost impossible to secure indefinitely. Capitalist self-interest worked wonderfully as a guarantor of peace in Eastern Europe, until it didn’t, and Russia annexed Crimea. Suu Kyi was an icon of a better way of doing politics in a desperate country, until she wasn’t. The EU was a model of secure cooperation, peace and prosperity, until it wasn’t. The work of the anti-nuclear campaigners has been effective, until such time as Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump press the button.

This may all sound a little fatalistic. In fact it is quite fatalistic, but that doesn’t mean I’m simply dismissing the Nobel peace prize. In fact I think it has a real value, just not in the glorification of the achievements of particular people – but in the assertion of hope in a more utopian, peaceful future. People are intrinsically flawed, and the danger of a prize is to put someone on a pedestal, over and above the cause itself. Yet the flipside is that for all the controversies and the disappointments and the lamentable failures, the prize represents an aspiration, the hope of a utopian better world.

Today’s politics is increasingly utopia-less, very few political leaders seem to have a compelling vision for anything beyond their next set of dreary memoirs. This prize holds up at least a vision and hope for some sort of global progress. That the vision is particular and lives within a particular ideological space is almost besides the point. The winners are a desperately flawed set of advocates for a better world, but advocates nonetheless. You could almost, in that sense, call them secular apostles.


Ben Ryan is a Researcher at Theos 

Image from wikimedia.org available under this Creative Commons Licence

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