On hearing the surprising news of President Obama's award of the Nobel Peace Prize, I could only wonder at the Norwegian award committee's own very long track record of sending out mixed messages about its intentions and reasoning. There was always a great irony in the original founding of the Peace Prize, since Alfred Nobel made his fortune through the invention and production of dynamite. It would be rather like Edward Teller and the other inventors of the hydrogen bomb giving out prizes for, say, environmental awareness.
Should the world's most famous prize go to a statesman who had managed to turn war into peace, or who has striven all his life for international understanding? Should it go to peace advocates? Should it even go to an organization? Finally, and this comes back to the Obama decision, should it be given out as a deliberate attempt to encourage future peace efforts; that is, should it reward promise rather than achievement?
In inspecting the long record of Nobel peace-prize winners since the first award, in 1901, jointly to Henry Dunant (founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross) and to Frederic Passy (founder of a French peace movement), the answer seems to be all of the above, almost as if the committee in Oslo enjoyed being unpredictable, and even confusing.
Every few years, for example, it awards the prize to an organization. The Red Cross has had it three times (1917,1944,1963). It went to the Permanent International Peace Bureau -- now what was that? -- in 1910. More recently the award has gone to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (1997), and to the renowned Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) (1999), which sounds about right.
But what about the 2001 award to the United Nations, which baffled a lot of people, including pro-U.N. authors like myself? Awarding it to the U.N., or to the International Labour Organization (1969), seems rather like giving the Nobel Prize in Physics to Bell Labs.
Much more understandable are the annual prizes to individuals who spent their lives committed to improving the physical condition and human rights of their fellow human beings, or to striving for world peace.
In the first category are those famous figures of Albert Schweitzer (1952), Martin Luther King Jr. (1964) and Mother Teresa (1979), along with the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov (1975); the conscience of the Holocaust, Eli Wiesel (1986); the Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi (1991); and the French Jewish-Catholic scholar Rene Cassin (1968), who drafted much of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
In the second would be the great African-American peacemaker/diplomat Ralph Bunche (1950); those tireless advocates for peace and disarmament Lord Robert Cecil (1937) and Philip Noel-Baker (1959); and the lovely Bishop Desmond Tutu (1984).
I must confess that when I scoured the entire list from 1901 to 2009, half of the names were unknown to me. Still, most of those mentioned above made a lot of sense, except of course to people who were not in favor of disarmament, human rights, free speech and international declarations on anything.
Sometimes this was an award for persistent stubbornness (Sakharov), and a reproof to an authoritarian regime that had sought to muzzle opinions. Sometimes the award may have backfired; Aung San Suu Kyi's prize may have caused the Burmese military junta to keep her in prison. Still, it certainly turned the spotlight on the nastiness of the current regime in Myanmar.
Much more debatable, I feel, is the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to politicians, especially those still in office. That ebullient imperialist Theodore Roosevelt, who pressed for war against Spain in 1898, led his "rough riders" into battle, built an enormous U.S. Navy, waved his famous big stick at Latin America and bullied Canada into concessions along the Alaska-British Columbia border and the British into handing over their half-rights to a Panama Canal, was the first of these. He was awarded his Nobel in 1906 in recognition of having coaxed the equally reluctant Russian and Japanese governments into ending their war across the Far East.
Thus was established the "reward for good deal-making" category, and there have been a lot since then: Woodrow Wilson (1919) for his pro-League of Nations diplomacy; Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann (1926) for their Franco-German reconciliation at Locarno in the previous year; Willy Brandt (1971) for his Ostpolitik efforts to thaw the Cold War; Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (1973) for their Vietnam War negotiations; Mikhael Gorbachev (1990) for being so kind as to actually end the Cold War; Anwar al-Sadat and Menachim Begin (1978) for the Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement -- plus a number of others.
Retrospectively, some of these look a bit premature, or an expression of the Oslo committee's hopes rather than recognizing a done deal. The American Frank Kellog got his in 1929 for negotiating transatlantic reparations and war-debts matters just as Wall Street was going down the tubes. Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzak Rabin got theirs (1994) for a Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation that has not come to pass. Kissinger and Tho got theirs in 1973 for a Southeast Asian settlement, and the fighting went on. Tho, notoriously, refused to accept the prize, probably wisely since it might have meant the end of his career in Hanoi, or his life.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Nobel Committee suspended its awards during both world wars, except to honor the International Committee of the Red Cross (1917 and 1944) for its tireless work on behalf of wounded and captured combatants.
The award of the 2009 prize to Barack Obama after only nine months in office fits none of the above categories. To his credit, the president showed a mixture of humility, grace and bemusement on learning, clearly to his surprise, about this news. He is now trying to present it as an affirmation from old Europe that America is returning to more multi-national and friendlier policies (he actually doesn't need to say "as compared to Bush and Cheney").
Whether it will hinder him or help him is for the political columnists and pundits to figure out. All in all, though, one gets the sense that the Nobel Committee has strayed into unknown territory; they are a long way from home, and the message they are trying to give is puzzling to both knee-jerk neo-conservatives and to disappointed peace activists. The news from Oslo sends out very mixed signals. Blessed are the cheesemakers, indeed.
C) 2009, TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
Paul Kennedy is Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at Yale University; and the author/editor of 19 books, including "The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers."