Book Review

A Nobel Dissent

04.18.12 4:00 AM ET

Why hasn’t the American military ever won the Nobel Peace Prize?

It may seem an odd question, but it’s an apt one, and Jay Nordlinger keeps tugging at it throughout his new history of the Prize, Peace They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, The Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World. Indeed, Thomas Friedman may have been the most recent advocate of the notion when he suggested, in his column, that President Obama accept the 2009 award “on behalf of the most important peacekeepers in the world for the last century—the men and women of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.”

We see many themes in Nordlinger’s sketches of the lives of the laureates. There are the early prizes for members of the peace movement, there are the many prizes for the League of Nations/UN and their constituent offices, there are the anti-apartheid freedom prizes (Lutuli, Tutu, Mandela), there are the anti-Soviet prizes (Sakharov, Walesa, and yes, Gorbachev), the many humanitarian prizes, diplomacy prizes, and several recently for environmental activism. But there is little to no credit given to deterrence, arguably the most realistic way to compel a lasting peace.

Peace is a slippery notion, as Nordlinger thoughtfully notes, and the five individuals nominated by the Norwegian parliament to chair the committee that grants this annual award must grapple with how to define peace and when to reward it. Peace, Nordlinger argues, is an abused word, an objective stretched by so many people in so many different situations, that it risks becoming meaningless.

“The cause of peace is not to be confused with the cause of pacifism,” he says in the book’s afterword. “At least of pacifism foolishly practiced. Neither is the cause of peace the same as the cause of disarmament. One of the Nobel Committee’s greatest errors has been to treat weapons as bad in and of themselves, without regard to who possesses them and why.”

The book’s soaring strength is in its skepticism of pacifism and disarmament as mechanisms for peace. And the storied history of these skeptics is the great untold story of the Peace Prize. Teddy Roosevelt won the Prize for his judicious objectivity in moderating negotiations between Russia and Japan, not for speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Winston Churchill never won the Peace Prize for his policy of “peace through strength,” rather, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ronald Reagan, who brought about the fall of the Soviet Union through an arms build-up, is also absent in the Nobel Prize’s annals.

Alfred Nobel’s will is brief in its instructions: the prize should go to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

What organization has done more to reduce standing armies around the world than the U.S. military? Its shear might negates the need for many industrialized Western countries to focus on defense, allowing for peaceful socially democratic nations like Norway to flourish throughout Europe.

As President Obama argued in his 2009 Nobel lecture, “the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” That lecture, which Nordlinger quotes at length, is just one of many of the feasts of eloquence to be found in the full history of Nobel ceremonies, but this one was particularly notable to the author: “the kind of defense [of American power] not heard at a Nobel ceremony since George C. Marshall received the prize in 1953.”

The Niebuhrian rhetoric of Obama’s speech is also present in Nordlinger’s reflections, late in the narrative, of his favorite of all the heroes in the book: “I suppose I would consider George C. Marshall something like the ideal peacemaker. He confronted evil when it appeared, and fought it, with arms. Then he went about bolstering the peace through, for example, the Marshall Plan.”