Ever since the Nobel Peace Prize was first given in 1901 it has had its share of controversies; but the recent awards, culminating with the 2012 award to the European Union (EU), might make this once-coveted prize the subject of un-noble ridicule.
Historically the controversies have revolved around acts of commission—in honouring those who were clearly undeserving of it—and omission—in not recognizing those who richly deserved it.
In the former category the very first award to a statesman in 1906 was given to uber-militaristic US president Theodore Roosevelt (of “speak softly and carry a big stick” fame), despite his conquests in the Pacific and Latin America. Other luminaries in this category include Elihu Root (Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary of war responsible for the occupation of The Philippines, Cuba and Panama who, like Roosevelt, believed that the US was entitled to govern “uncivilized” people); Henry Kissinger (responsible for the biggest escalation of the Vietnam war), whose award triggered two protest resignations from the Nobel committee; and Yasser Arafat and Menachem Begin (both of whom led terrorist organizations).
In the latter category Mahatma Gandhi is the most obvious omission, even though several of his ardent disciples, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Aung San Suu Kyi, earned the distinction. Similarly, while futile peace efforts in the Middle East have been acknowledged, no such recognition has been forthcoming for peace initiatives in South Asia.
However, these foibles pale in comparison to the baffling choice of recent awardees. The 2002 award to former US president Jimmy Carter was a very late afterthought and was, clearly, designed to signal disapproval of president George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq. Even the chairman of the Nobel Prize committee frankly admitted that Carter should have received the prize in 1978, for his mediation of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, rather than 24 years later.
Similarly, the 2009 award to US president Barack Obama was less recognition of the young president’s achievements and more an admonishment of the policies of his predecessor. In his Nobel lecture a visibly discomfited Obama candidly acknowledged the “considerable controversy” the decision of the committee’s had created “because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labours on the world stage”. If Obama was given the prestigious award too soon then the EU, like Carter, has been given the award at least 30 years too late.
To be fair, the EU is certainly deserving of the award, having finally brought peace to a conflict-ridden continent whose constituent nations and reckless leaders were responsible for perpetuating conflict in Europe and the rest of the world for over a century. Today, thanks largely to the EU, war is “unthinkable” at least among Europe’s key countries. The EU is also justifiably credited with democratizing the birthplace of both left-and right-wing totalitarianism as well as making Europe—until recently—an economic powerhouse.
And yet, despite the long peace Europe has not been able to give up its nuclear weapons and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. While publicly both Britain and France point to nebulous and unspecified threats to retain their nuclear arsenals, privately they admit that it is the mistrust of the other that will compel them to hold on to their increasingly unaffordable weapons.
Similarly the EU, which introduced democracy in modern Greece, Spain and Portugal, now finds itself in the awkward position of enforcing undemocratic institutions and solutions on these very countries to address the current economic crisis.
For Europe, which suffered over 50 million casualties in two brutal wars and is now facing economic meltdown, the Nobel Peace Prize gives very little and comes too late.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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