Why Not Trump? the Nobel Peace Prize Finds Itself at War

 In E3, Germany

Every year, during an early week in October, the Nobel prizes are announced. Monday starts with Medicine, fol­lowed by Physics and Chemistry on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday there are usu­al­ly a few rolled eyes in the world’s lit­er­ary salons, but on Friday all hell breaks loose as the Norwegians take center stage to talk about “peace.” It wasn’t always like this. Before the Second World War, a parade of states­men and bureau­crats made up the bulk of the lau­re­ates, with the odd writer and cam­paign­er against “mil­i­tarism” or some such thrown in. Carl Von Ossietzky, the German paci­fist, and Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explor­er and League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, are among the more inter­est­ing awards from this period.

Most of the early awards reflect­ed a fairly con­ser­v­a­tive com­mit­ment to what has become known as “neg­a­tive peace” in which sta­bil­i­ty and bro­kered peace treaties are pri­or­i­tized over more polit­i­cal claims con­cern­ing the causes of war and the con­di­tions of just out­comes. After the Second World War, how­ev­er, the deci­sion-makers branched out into more “pos­i­tive” ter­ri­to­ry taking on a broad­er scope of issues from food secu­ri­ty with Norman Borlaug the American agron­o­mist to envi­ron­men­tal secu­ri­ty with Al Gore and the IPCC. There were still many awards for bro­kered peace treaties, but usu­al­ly the award went to the sig­na­to­ries them­selves, hence David Trimble and John Hume for the Northern Ireland peace process and Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin for Israeli-Palestinian accords.

Yet for all the con­tro­ver­sies over the years, includ­ing the Vietnamese politi­cian, Le Duc Tho, who refused it as his “war wasn’t over yet” (or words to that effect) when award­ed it along­side Henry Kissinger in 1973, at least all pre­vi­ous con­tro­ver­sies were con­tin­gent on actual awards. This year, how­ev­er, a mere nom­i­na­tion has caused a crisis.

The Nominations Game

Ordinarily, a mere nom­i­na­tion causes no par­tic­u­lar prob­lems. Any uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor, elect­ed member of par­lia­ment or former lau­re­ate can the­o­ret­i­cal­ly enter a nom­i­na­tion, so there is always a range between the dis­tin­guished and the dis­rep­utable. The com­mit­tee does not pub­lish the nom­i­na­tions they receive until fifty years later, mean­ing the debate sur­round­ing them is mostly just hot air. This year, how­ev­er, President Donald J. Trump has been very publicly nominated by a Norwegian MP, and obvi­ous­ly this cannot be tol­er­at­ed.

Notwithstanding that Adolf Hitler was nom­i­nat­ed in 1938 and Saddam Hussein was report­ed­ly nom­i­nat­ed more than once, appar­ent­ly Trump’s mere nom­i­na­tion has scan­dal­ized impor­tant mem­bers of the opin­ion-form­ing elite. So much so that The Atlantic mag­a­zine has called for an end to the prize alto­geth­er on the author­i­ty of one of their junior staff writ­ers, pre­sum­ably after a morn­ing spent skim read­ing this and that.

Aside from the onanis­tic scorn, how­ev­er, the arti­cle makes a couple of impor­tant points. The con­cept of peace is com­pli­cat­ed and deeply con­test­ed, and nowhere is the argu­ment more focused than in the annual bun­fight over the Nobel Peace Prize. Indeed some recent awards have borne the clear stamp of “issue val­i­da­tion” in which the ques­tion resolved isn’t so much the great­est con­tri­bu­tion to peace in the last year, but the great­est aggre­ga­tion of per­son­al virtue in respect of the cause with which the lau­re­ate is asso­ci­at­ed. In 2018, for exam­ple, the award went to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad which high­light­ed the issue of sexual vio­lence against women in war. Both of the awardees, one of whom was her­self a victim of sexual vio­lence, were per­son­al­ly unim­peach­able, but they were also almost unknown.

The Problem of Peace

The think­ing behind the prize to Mukwege and Murad was to raise aware­ness of an extreme­ly dif­fi­cult and rou­tine­ly over­looked fea­ture of con­flict in many parts of the world. It was there­fore a deeply sym­bol­ic award which placed the issue of sexual vio­lence on the main stage for the first time, and deserved­ly so. There was also, how­ev­er, a sec­ondary pur­pose revealed inad­ver­tent­ly by the Atlantic arti­cle, which is simply the need to main­tain the integri­ty of the Nobel Prize itself. Because peace is such a con­test­ed polit­i­cal issue some awards attract con­sid­er­able crit­i­cism. Every year, there­fore, the Nobel Committee has to keep one eye on how the award will be per­ceived by, for exam­ple, staff writ­ers at The Atlantic, mean­ing that many awards reveal more about the issues the Nobel Committee imag­ine we should do more about, than reflect any­thing actu­al­ly achieved in the last year.

This approach has served to immu­nize the Nobel Committee from crit­i­cism, but when they occa­sion­al­ly leave the com­fort-zone of abstract mus­ings on the nature of true peace, and instead award the prize to some­one who has made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion there­to, they increas­ing­ly come unstuck. Never was this more stark­ly the case than with the ele­va­tion of Barack Obama to the status of a Nobel lau­re­ate. The offi­cial rea­son­ing referred to nuclear non­pro­lif­er­a­tion and applaud­ed his out­reach to the Muslim world — both of which are worthy appeals to a neg­a­tive con­cep­tion of peace — but the prize was obvi­ous­ly pre­ma­ture even on its own terms and has prob­a­bly done more to dis­cred­it the prize than any other award in recent his­to­ry. The prize went from being a bit boring, but worthy, to being unse­ri­ous and par­ti­san. Geir Lundestad, the committee’s former sec­re­tary has publicly admitted that it fell short.

To be fair to President Obama, he was respect­ful enough of the prize to accept it but always clear he didn’t really deserve it, care­ful to deflect the praise to the work he thought he was con­tribut­ing too. Trump, on the other hand, has very pub­licly spec­u­lat­ed whether he would be award­ed one, openly sug­gest­ing that he deserves to be. It’s always dif­fi­cult to know if Trump is entire­ly seri­ous when he says this kind of thing or whether he just knows how to wind up his oppo­nents, but this year’s nom­i­na­tion cannot be dis­missed entire­ly. And this is why the mere nom­i­na­tion of Donald Trump this year has proved so con­tro­ver­sial: not from any­thing remark­able about the nom­i­na­tion itself, but from the rather obvi­ous fact that he deserves it.

And the Winner is…

Not that deserv­ing the Nobel Peace Prize has any bear­ing on being award­ed it, but it is worth recon­sid­er­ing why Trump has a legit­i­mate claim on it. The lead­ers of Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates sit­ting togeth­er on the White House lawn and sign­ing an agree­ment to grant full mutual diplo­mat­ic recog­ni­tion may not seem like an out­break of peace between par­ties not known for recent con­flict, but this is a quite a water­shed moment in Middle Eastern his­to­ry. These devel­op­ments align with wider evo­lu­tions in the region’s eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal out­look, so aren’t entire­ly a bolt from the blue, nev­er­the­less recog­ni­tion that Israel has a right to exist is a more solid plat­form for improved rela­tions than not doing so. For two impor­tant mem­bers of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council to embrace Israel into the family of Middle Eastern nations is a stun­ning devel­op­ment, whether Trump had any­thing to do with it or not.

Not only that, but Trump bro­kered this agree­ment against all expec­ta­tions and after warn­ings that his recog­ni­tion of Jerusalem as the cap­i­tal of Israel would set the region ablaze. In other words, he showed up the entire class of for­eign policy spe­cial­ists and Middle East watch­ers as being pris­on­ers of out­dat­ed ideas. No one pre­dict­ed this break­through, and yet here we are. The bet­ting odds cur­rent­ly place Trump at 14 to 1, just ahead of the EU (again, though what for is anyone’s guess) at 16 to 1. The cur­rent favorite is the WHO, fol­lowed by Greta Thunberg, Jacinda Ardern, and the UNHCR, then Trump.

Here is where the Norwegian Nobel Committee faces a dilem­ma. In all like­li­hood, they will give in to fash­ion­able left-wing out­rage and award the prize to the WHO, despite their evi­dent fail­ures this very year, or per­haps to Greta Thunberg for an emo­tion­al speech last year. They may give it to Jacinda Ardern for sound­ing com­pas­sion­ate while crush­ing the New Zealand econ­o­my, or the UNHCR for not solv­ing any of the prob­lems it was estab­lished to address. If they are brave, how­ev­er, they will reassert the pri­ma­cy of actual peace nego­ti­a­tions that make a dif­fer­ence to mil­lions of peo­ple’s lives rather than grand pon­tif­i­ca­tion on what exact­ly peace “is.” If the Nobel Committee simply shrugs and says “despite every­thing, this Middle East break­through is extreme­ly impor­tant,” that would show the world that the real prize is always peace not pop­u­lar­i­ty. Indeed, if in the next few weeks fur­ther Middle Eastern states emerge to join the new arrange­ments, then not award­ing the prize to Trump may come to be seen as their great­est error yet.

Douglas Bulloch holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and is an inter­na­tion­al rela­tions schol­ar based in Hong Kong.

Image: Reuters.

National Interest source|articles

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