The Noble Nobel?

by Jesse Harasta on January 22, 2013

American liberals often find the Nobel Peace Prize disappointing in a way that their conservative counterparts don’t. To conservatives, the awarding of prizes to figures like Yassir Arafat, Barack Obama, and the European Union simply confirms their views of a socialist Europe. But to some liberals, such openly political awards are often more troubling. After all, isn’t the Peace Prize about recognizing those who struggle against oppression and human rights? Isn’t it about shining well-deserved light into dark corners and revealing heroes? Liberals are happy when the award goes to political prisoners under authoritarian regimes, like Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi or China’s Liu Xiaobo, but they tend to see prizes awarded to politicians—even to an ideologically liberal awardee like Obama—as wasted or inconsistent with the spirit of the prize.

The apparent inconsistency disappears, however, when we view the prize as a tool of the Norwegian government, one of its most important means of projecting a public image of Norway on the global stage. Unlike obviously political awards like the (defunct) Lenin Peace Prize or the Congressional Medal of Freedom—awarded by the USSR and the USA, respectively—the Nobel hides its political nature behind the story of Alfred Nobel, a visionary whose last will and testament is simply, and rather passively, executed by the Norwegian state. The Norwegians are careful to maintain the letter of the will and further cloak it in traditions like the royal presentation ceremony and the need for Selection Committee unanimity.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Norwegian politicians make up the Selection Committees, and their Norwegian political goals are not left behind at the door. The entire Nobel complex—but especially the Peace Prize—is a pageant performed with such pomp and ceremony because it serves the goals of the sponsor states and, moreover, has done so since its inception. It is of no surprise then that as Norway’s position and goals in the geopolitical arena have evolved, so have the characteristics of the awardees. It is useful to divide the history of the award into three stages: Neutral Norway (1901–39), Diplomat of the West (1945–89), and Humanitarian Great Power (1989–present).

Neutral Norway, 1901–39

The Nobel Peace Prize is older than Norway itself, having been founded in 1901, four years before the separation of Norway and Sweden. The new nation inherited the Prize, which has always been a symbolic resource and component of Norway’s national image. When the Prize was founded in 1901, “Peace” meant principally a lack of war between European powers. The balance in Europe between the eventual belligerents of WWI was delicate, and the governments of Europe’s smaller nations—including not only Norway but also Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and others—sought refuge in neutrality and the construction of the first modern international institutions. It should be of no surprise that the first awards went to those involved in groups like the International Red Cross, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the International Peace Bureau, and the Geneva Conventions.

The fact that the European powers during this period waged continuous war in the pursuit and maintenance of empire is never acknowledged, though the outbreak of European war in 1914 led to an immediate cessation of the Prize for the majority of the conflict’s duration. Norway had nothing to gain but ire from intervention in Africa and Asia—not to mention that it feared being accused of violating neutrality if it stuck its nose in the affairs of the bigger players’ empires. It did, however, have everything at stake in a European war.

If we look at the 19 awardees between 1901 and 1913, we can see several patterns. First, all were Europeans or white North Americans, and all but one were involved directly in promoting arbitration and dialogue in international relations (one, Alfred Fried, who won in 1911, founded the German Peace Society). Second, none of them were representatives of oppressed peoples seeking freedom, and although some opposed their own governments’ foreign policy, none opposed those governments’ basic structures—even though many winners lived in undemocratic states like Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One winner, U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (1906), was lauded for arbitrating between Russia and Japan, even as he expanded the Monroe Doctrine defining the Western Hemisphere as an area of U.S. domination, maintained a brutal colonial regime in the Philippines, and cleaved Panama from Colombia. Eleven of the 19 winners in this period came from neutral countries.

Despite the manifest failures of neutrality, arbitration, and the Hague Convention’s attempts to limit the brutality in World War I, the basic logic of the Prize was maintained between the Wars (1919–39) as well. The Nobel Committee rewarded the architects of the new scaffolding of international peace—the League of Nations—and the 1925 Locarno Treaties, which normalized relations between Germany and its neighbors. The stage was different now, as Europe had more governments and Germany was humbled, but the primary goal—preventing European wars—remained unchanged.

There was also a shift toward rewarding those from Great Powers, rather than neutral countries, who promoted negotiation, including three Frenchmen, three Germans, and four Englishmen. The first non-European/North American was given the award in this period: Carlos Saavedra Lamas (1936), an Argentine who negotiated the end of the Chaco War. As the Second World War loomed, the Committee—undoubtedly like the Norwegian government itself—sought to promote disarmament. They awarded Arthur Henderson (1934), an American who worked in disarmament with the League and, famously, Carl von Ossietzky (1935), a German who leaked his nation’s secret rearmament to the press and was imprisoned. Like the Western European nations with which Norway was increasingly aligned in this period, “peace” increasingly came to look like a maintenance of a status quo: cowed Germany, vulnerable Eastern Europe, and safe Western Europe.

Diplomat of the West (1945–89)

The era of arbitration ended in 1939 and Norwegian neutrality ended on April 9, 1940, when the Germans invaded the country. Despite attempts by the Nazi-supported regime to seize control of the Nobel apparatus in 1944 (when it was transferred to neutral Swedish protection), the prize was not awarded during the war.

The world that emerged in 1945 was fundamentally different. Importantly for the Prize, Norway’s strategic position had also changed. “Peace” now meant a lack of nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR. Like the majority of the other European neutral powers (Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg), Norway officially sided with the Western Allies and joined NATO in 1949. However, the Norwegians occupied a particular place within the Western Bloc as its un-official diplomat. A Norwegian, Trygve Lie, was selected as the first full UN secretary-general, serving until he was driven out by the USSR in 1952 and was replaced by someone who, like like every secretary general since then, came from a non-NATO country (in this case Sweden). In contrast, the Nobel Committee would not give the award to an individual from a non-NATO country until 1960, Albert Lutuli from South Africa (though in 1954, it awarded a UN institution, UNHCR, based in Switzerland). Eventually, the Soviet Union came to see the Nobel Prize as a tool of Western foreign policy and set up a rival, the Lenin Prize. Its hostility was reinforced by the 1975 prize for Soviet dissident Adrei Sakharov, the 1983 award for Pole Lech Wałęsa and the 1989 award to the Dalai Lama.

However, during this time, we can see a slow shift of the award’s focus. The first prizes in the 1940s and 1950s rewarded the architects of European peace and Western European reconstruction, including famously the 1953 award to American general George Marshall, author of the Marshall Plan. Slowly, though, the Committee began to look toward the new arena of international struggle: the emerging states of the Third World. Here, they attempted to promote and reward peaceful decolonization and superpower mediation. The first evidence of this is the absence of an award in 1948, the year of Gandhi’s death, because “there was no suitable living candidate” (the award cannot be given posthumously). The first “African” award was actually given to a European, Albert Schweitzer (1952), a French pacifist, doctor, and philosopher who worked in today’s Gabon and criticized colonialism.

The Norwegians took up the defense of the United Nations as they previously did with the League of Nations, but the new organization had a specific mandate for human rights that began to work its way into the prize’s public perception. For instance, the 1968 award was to Rene Cassin, the first president of the European Court for Human Rights, and both Martin Luther King’s 1964 and the International Red Cross’s 1963 awards specifically mention their defense of civil and human rights.

Humanitarian Great Power (1989–Present)

The changes began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, ushering in a new age throughout the globe, but particularly in Europe. While NATO (and Norway’s commitment to it) did not end, its relevance began to fade, and once again the definition of “Peace” began to shift. Instead of signifying a lack of nuclear conflict between superpowers, focus now turned primarily to internal conflicts and civil wars, the solutions of which often needed social change and economic development in addition to negotiation between rival elites.

During this period, Norway positioned itself both at home and abroad as a peace-making “great power,” especially under the direction of Jan Egeland as foreign minister (1990–97). Following the 1993 triumph of the Oslo Accords, Norwegians were called upon to mediate in Palestine/Israel, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Corsica, Guatemala, the Sudan, Haiti, Mali, Ethiopia/Eritrea, and the Dominican Republic. Thus the 1994 prize given to Yassir Arafat, Yitzkah Rabin, and Shimon Peres (Palestine/Israel) was as much an advertisement and celebration of Norwegian success and Norway’s new global status as it was of Palestinian and Israeli triumph. This concept of the nation as a “humanitarian Great Power” became fundamentally linked to the concept of Norwegian-ness, as one Norwegian critic noted:

…And in the meeting with the world outside, in the era of the globalization, the thought about the humanitarian Great Power became a new identity-shaping symbol for Norwegians. They worshipped and believed in “Norway” as international brand name, circling around the international engagement for democracy, human rights, conflict solution and peace.

This continues, as recently as November 2012, the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas that began in Oslo, with Norway as one of the negotiations’ guarantors.

The Peace Prize has become a central part of this projection of Norwegian identity at home and abroad. Since 1989, the Peace Prize has been primarily awarded to people from countries with internal conflicts: Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma (1991), Rigoberta Menchu from Guatemala (1992), Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk from South Africa (1993), John Hume and David Trimble from Northern Ireland (1998), and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia and Tawakel Karman from Yemen (2011).

Another post-1989 trend has been the correlation between economic development and peace. Several of the awardees during this period, while having political projects, are more rightly considered development activists, not peace activists. This includes Kenyan Wangari Maathai (2004), who works on reforestation and has long collaborated with the Norwegian government—receiving grants from the Norwegian Forestry Service as early as the 1980s. Even more development minded was the 2006 awardee, Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, who developed the concept of microcredit loans. This recent trend is a reflection of the neoliberal association between (micro) entrepreneurialism, economic growth, political freedom, and peace—a definition of “peace” a far cry from what was envisioned in the days of Alfred Nobel.

 Within this context, we can begin to tease apart the recent disappointment and confusion among American liberals at the awarding of the Nobel Prize to the European Union (2012) and Barack Obama (2009). When we instead see the Nobel Peace Prize as an extension of Norway’s foreign policy: certainly a way of rewarding “good behavior” but, perhaps most importantly, promoting the global concept of the Norwegian Humanitarian Great Power. This foreign policy is thoroughly neoliberal, but—building upon earlier eras of Norwegian foreign policy—favors international law, arbitration, and human rights. Thus, the prize for Obama is a reward for turning away from Bush-era policy, and the prize for the EU is a reaffirmation of liberalized markets and European integration.

The Prize: The Norwegian State’s Public Mask and the Ideological Club

The modern American liberal’s understanding of the Nobel Peace Prize is a product not so much of Nobel’s vision or the humanitarian values central to the identity of contemporary Norway, but to 111 years of evolution—evolution not only in the Prize and its recipients, but in the global position of the Norwegian state, the national identity of Norwegians, and the very definition of “Peace.”

The Prize predates Norway, but only by a few years, and the evolution of the two has been intertwined—especially in its latest incarnation when the Prize became evidence prima facie of Norway’s status as a “Humanitarian Great Power.” The annual pageant, even as it temporarily rewards one or a handful of global actors, is an eternal depiction of the nature of Norway: neutral, benevolent, high-minded, and magisterial. The greatest beneficiary of this ceremony is not the shifting crowd of laureates, nor the cause of peace (however it is defined at the moment), but the Norwegian state itself. How can one question Norway’s ethics—for instance its massive arms industry, the neoliberal biases of its development aid, its vast investment firms, or its economy’s reliance upon the exportation of carbon-based energy—when the overwhelming image one faces, as either a Norwegian or a foreigner, is of a great national font of diplomats working everywhere for peace and justice? How can we criticize a Humanitarian Great Power when we live in a world of war? The Prize is simultaneously the public mask and the ideological club of the Norwegian state, its greatest argument for its own global influence.

Does this mean that the cause of peacemaking is pointless and moot? Of course not, for peace is valuable in itself; instead, we should pause when we meet self-appointed peacemakers—be they individuals, private groups, nations or alliances—and look deeper, behind the masks and beyond the clubs.


Jesse Harasta is a linguistic and cultural anthropologist who studies contemporary language and nationalism in Cornwall in the southwestern corner of the island of Great Britain.  He is a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University and an active participant in Occupy Syracuse and its Graduate Student Committee.

  • http://www.nobelwill.org Fredrik S. Heffermehl

    Let me commend Jesse Harasta on a very informed article and many interesting views. Unfortunately it fails in the most important respect, by not taking its point of departure in a correct understanding of who and what Nobel wished his prize to promote. His prize was not for “peace” but for the “champions of peace” and in my book on the peace prize I have documented beyond the slightest doubt that he had the peace movement of Bertha von Suttner in mind. He was a member and sponsor of Suttner and her organizations (Austrian Peace Society and International Peace Bureau) and he had promised her to do “something big” for the movement and informed her immediately after signing the will that he had done as promised. The “champions of peace” of the time had a great and necessary project, building international law and institutions to a point where it would be possible for nations to “lay down their arms.” The movement´s program is specified or referred to in several expressions in the will, “creating a/the brotherhood of nations,” “disarmament” and “peace congresses.” More on the purpose of Nobel and my struggle through over five year to insist that the Norwegian awarders loyally respect the disarmament purpose, people who are dissidents in today´s world, in my book “The Nobel Peace Prize. What Nobel Really Wanted” (in 7 languages) and at http://www.nobelwill.org. The book developed into a study of defective democracy and the methods used by the Norwegian establishment to suppress criticism.

  • http://www.nobelwill.org Fredrik S. Heffermehl

    Harasta has just followed common practice. His failure of not “taking as point of departure a correct understanding of who and what Nobel wished his prize to promote” is so common that it is easy to fall in this trap. Much more serious is that the Norwegian awarders do not start with Nobel and what he wanted, which defines their mandate. Quite on the contrary, despite hundreds of letters, articles and books in 7 languages, I have not seen the least sign of interest in Nobel and his peace vision. Quite to the contrary – they sabotage the true purpose of Nobel´s prize and all attempts to have a serious, fact-based, truth-seeking and honest discussion.

  • Jesse Harasta

    Fredrik- I think you miss one of the key points of my article. I believe that the idea that we need to be loyal to the ideals of the Founders–of nations, constitutions or peace prizes–is a fallacy. If the Norwegian Government publicly dismissed all of the statements of Alfred Nobel, declaring them relevant for a previous age, and re-writing the prize, I would not necessarily have a problem. I think that the politics of today should never been guided by the dreams of a century ago (informed perhaps, but the dead are dead, politics is for the living). My problem is not that Norwegian politicians use the Prize as I think whomever administers the prize would use it. But instead that they cloak themselves in the AURA of neutrality and benevolence, giving themselves and, by extension, Norway ideological cover. It is the very fact that they deny the partisanship of their actions, that they use the memory of Nobel, that is key to the criticism.

    Quite frankly, I could care less what Alfred Nobel’s goals and dreams were and whether the Committee lives up to them today. Perhaps they are intellectually interesting or useful, but just because a rich man was able to put together the money for a prize a hundred years ago to assuage his guilt-ridden conscience doesn’t mean that I have to give those thoughts the time of day today. I think that, much like a claim to be in the spirit of the North American Republic’s founders, ANY claim to be working for the ideals of Alfred Nobel would simply be cover for something else.

Previous post:

Next post: