[Prefatory Note: The Nobel Prize for 2016 was given to the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, in recognition of his efforts to end internal civil strife that had continued in the country for over half a century. An agreement was achieved with the main rebel group, but depended for final adoption on approval by the citizens of Colombia through a referendum. This was unexpectedly defeated, leaving the future of the country in doubt. The NYT initiated a discussion of the merits of this award to Santos through its mechanism of ‘Room for Debate’ in which several individuals are invited to submit comments. My comment critical of the award is printed below, and is followed by an even more critical comment by Fredrik S. Heffermehl, a Norwegian jurist who has taken a special interest in the Nobel Peace Prize, especially making a great effort to call attention to the failure of the Norwegian committee that is responsible for deciding on recipients to adhere to the will and intentions of Alfred Nobel who established this most coveted of international awards at the end of the nineteenth century. The two other comments published in this debate on the opionion pages of the NY Times were contributed by Jeffrey Goldberg of the New School of Social Research in New York City and Michael Kazin of Georgetown University.]
- OCTOBER 11, 2016
What the Nobel Peace Prize Prizes
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.
Five days after his nation voted down his effort to end a 52-year conflict with leftist rebels, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a peace treaty. President Barack Obama won the prize only nine months into his presidency.
Should the Nobel Prize be awarded for concrete achievements, or is it important to recognize those who aspire to peace? What is lost or gained when awards are given for aspirations?
Should the Nobel Prize only be given for actual achievements, or is it important to recognize those who aspire to peace?
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee Has Stretched the Understanding of the Prize
Richard Falk is Milbank Professor of International Law, Emeritus, at Princeton University, and author of “Power Shift: on the New Global Order.”
The Nobel Committee insisted that this yearâ€™s peace prize was given to President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia because he tried so hard to achieve peace, even though he failed, and to encourage efforts to revive the process. It remains to be seen whether those efforts will succeed. Thorbjorn Jagland, former chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the peace prize, observed that “since there is so little actual peace in the world, we have to award those who are trying.”
Without moral clarity with respect to the recipient, only the greatest achievement can overcome the taint of a compromised past.
But should the award be a way of encouraging efforts to achieve peace or to honor the achievement of peace? I think that both kinds of contributions to a peaceful world are consistent with the wishes of Alfred Nobel, although I think the selection committee stretched the understanding of peace beyond what Nobel had in mind by honoring human rights and environmental activists (for example, Shirin Ebadi in 2003, Lech Walesa in 1983 and Al Gore in 2007) whose activities however admirable are not easily linked to peace as understood by Nobel.
It’s even worse when the award is bestowed either prematurely, as with President Barack Obama in 2009, or against the background of a career that seemed disposed to war-making and complicity in human rights abuses, as in the case with the 1973 award to Henry Kissinger. There are occasions when an award can be given for a lifetime of struggle for peace as was the case when Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences received the award in 1995 for â€œtheir efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.â€ Such encouragement seems entirely appropriate.
Obama’s Prague speech, given prior to his Nobel Prize, inspired many by depicting his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. In retrospect, the Nobel Committee was indulging in wishful thinking. Obama, although internationally moderate in many respects, escalated the American military involvement in Afghanistan just weeks after receiving the award, and worse, never really used the eight years of his presidency to push forward the Prague vision.
Finally, the Santos award is questionable for several reasons. For one thing, Santos served as Defense Minister under Alvaro Uribe, who earlier pushed a vicious paramilitary campaign led by Santos against the guerillas. For another, unlike prior Nobel awards for peacemaking efforts (U.S./Vietnam, Israel/Egypt, Israel/P.L.O.), the counterpart in negotiations, the rebel leader Ronrigo Londono, was not a co-recipient or even mentioned in the citation.
What emerges from this commentary is the importance of moral clarity with respect to the recipient, without which only the greatest actual achievement can overcome the taint of a compromised past.
Nobel’s Will Determines What the Peace Prize Should Recognize
October 13, 2016
Since writing a book with a legal analysis of Aflred Nobel’s intention I have been reminding the world that the will Nobel wrote in 1895 is decisive in all questions about the prizes, even though its criticism has been frequently ignored. If the testament covers an issue, one may debate the wisdom of Nobel, but he is dead and the will is final. If it doesn’t cover an issue, the floor is open.
He said all five prizes should go to those who have conferred the greatest benefit on humanity.” Above all the will is important on the core question of who can win. Surprisingly many seem to think that to answer such questions they just need to go to the will and make sense of what the words mean to them. But legal interpretation is about what the testator intended and requires extensive study of evidence and circumstance. What counts in law is what the words must have meant to Nobel irrespective of the words he used, said the Swedish jurist Torgny Haystad.
So, does Nobel’s will require that the prize only recognize achievements? A mere linguistic analysis of the words is not conclusive. More helpful is to note that all his five prizes should go to those who have conferred the greatest benefit on humanity, and also consider the zeitgeist of boundless optimism and hopes of changing the plight of mankind through major inventions. As he signed the will he also took steps to buy a Swedish liberal paper, writing that he wished to end armaments and other remnants from Medieval times, this is also evidence of what went on in his head in 1895.
The will´s most helpful word to identify Nobel´s intention is that prizes were to benefit the champions of peace and the evidence, mainly letters, show that by this expression he meant the movement for ending armaments through co-operation and nations relying on courts of law instead of strength in the battlefield. These ideas for a specific new, peaceful world order were inspired by Nobel’s friend, the prominent peace advocate Baroness Bertha von Suttner.
As long as the Nobel committee is loyal to his vision of peace, I would allow it considerable leeway. But without even considering the question of achievement or aspiration, neither President Obama nor President Santos should be considered the champions of peace who Nobel had in mind. Nobel envisioned global disarmament, not mere resolution of national conflicts, as Santos tries to accomplish. And since receiving his prize, Obama has hardly pursued such a path.
The Nobel Prize Recognizes That Aspiring to Peace Makes Peace More Likely
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Michael E. Gellert Professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at the New School for Social Research, editor in chief of Public Seminar and author of “Reinventing Political Culture: the Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life.”
UPDATED OCTOBER 11, 2016, 1:43 PM
Given President Barack Obama’s stewardship of American foreign policy after winning his Nobel Peace prize, it would seem that the award this year to President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia may have been a mistake. In both cases, the award was as much about aspiration as achievement, and sometimes aspiration is just not enough.
But then again, sometimes it is, and sometimes the recognition of the aspiration has a way to turn it into achievement.
Obama recognized the ideals of Gandhi and King, and knew he wouldn’t be able to adhere to their ideals absolutely.
Obama was awarded the prize for his “efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Yet, he escalated the war in Afghanistan, and the war there and in Iraq continue. The U.S. drone program has been expanding during Obama’s watch. And under Obama’s leadership, the U.S. has continued to be engaged in further military actions in North Africa and the Middle East.
On the other hand, Obama has helped de-militarize American foreign policy, winding down two wars. He has publicly and clearly affirmed U.S. commitments to respect the Geneva Agreements and ended the American use of torture. And under Obama’s leadership, American military engagements have been multilateral and debated in and supported by the United Nations.
The prize is awarded in the tough zone that exists between ideal and reality.
Obama’s Nobel lecture was about this. He confronted the paradox of awarding the Peace Prize to the commander in chief of the world’s premiere superpower. He recognized the ideals of Gandhi and King, as he knew he wouldn’t be able to adhere to their ideals absolutely. But he has confronted the hard realities of a complex world mindful of the ideals, distinguishing himself on the world stage.
And this indeed is what President Santos has done. He has resolutely worked to “bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end,” trying to convince all parties to the conflict that a just peace has been achieved, one that properly balances the ideals of peace, with the pursuit of justice and accountability. While because of the complex political situation in Colombia, he has not achieved his goal to date, in his aspirations, he has kept the ideal alive, which the Nobel Committee rightly recognized and honored.
And this may be politically significant: the very recognition of the aspiration makes more likely the achievement of peace.
The Nobel Can Reward Thankless Efforts for a Crucial Goal
UPDATED OCTOBER 11, 2016, 3:21 AM
It is hardly novel to award the peace prize for a goal that has not yet been accomplished. President Woodrow Wilson won in 1919 for championing a League of Nations the United States did not join. A French and a German diplomat shared the prize in 1927 for “contributions to Franco-German reconciliation” – at the time, more a hope than an achievement. The lovely aspiration became a bad joke when Hitler’s armies rolled into Paris thirteen years later. The Norwegian committee had better foresight when it gave the prize to Lech Walesa in 1983 and Desmond Tutu a year later. Within a decade, both their causes had triumphed.
The prize sends a message about how societies should work, instead of how they actually do. It rewards service in the quest of a peaceful world.
Such prizes always send a message of how societies should work instead of how they actually do. And shouldn’t there be at least one universally celebrated form of recognition that rewards diligent service in the quest of a truly peaceful world?
If so, two of the most worthy recipients were American feminists – Jane Addams and Emily Green Balch. Addams won the award in 1931 for decades of pacifist organizing. As one of the leaders of the movement to stop World War I, she got condemned as a traitor and a coward. In the wake of that horrific conflict, however, she seemed more like a prophet. The Nobel committee saluted Addams for holding “fast to the ideal of peace even during the difficult hours when other considerations and interests obscured it from her compatriots and drove them into the conflict.” Balch received the honor in 1946. With Addams, she had created the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – an organization whose members devoted themselves to exposing the cruel U.S. occupation of Haiti as well as campaigning for international disarmament.
Pacifism has never been a sizeable movement, in any land or in the world at large. In his great 1910 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” William James pointed out that men from every nation were willing, even eager, to fight—and most women supported them—because war seduced as well as horrified. It was, he wrote, a mark of “the strong life…of life in extremis.” In contrast, peace advocates appeared weak, soft, and ineffectual. But this is all the more reason to signal, with the world’s most prestigious medal, that stopping both current and future wars is one of the greatest and most urgent tasks of all.