Alfred Nobel had one odd thing in common with Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway and Marcus Garvey. He had the chance to read about his own death in the newspapers. It seems that he was so depressed by the emphasis that the obituarists laid on his pioneering work on dynamite—the WMD of its day—that he resolved at once to upgrade his real death notice by endowing an award for international peace.
But if "premature" is the word for Nobel's scanning of reports of his own demise, then it is also the most polite word for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to our 44th president in the first year of his first term. Up until now, the annual awards for "peace," bestowed by right-thinking Scandinavians, have been of five distinct types:
1. For service to diplomacy and realpolitik. In this category might fall Theodore Roosevelt—no peace-lover—for his part in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese war, that now-forgotten disaster that presaged both the First World War and the Russian Revolution. One might add here the other awards to statesmen who were still active politicians, such as Chancellor Willy Brandt of (then) West Germany in 1971 and Mikhail Gorbachev, effectively the last leader of the Soviet Union, in 1990.
2. For service to cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy. Here we find Yasir Arafat and Henry Kissinger, along with their Israeli and North Vietnamese counterparts, garlanded for "peace" agreements that were not intended to hold and that led to later outbreaks of lethal violence. (It has to be said of Le Duc Tho, Kissinger's Stalinist co-laureate from Hanoi, that he had the grace to decline his share of the award.) Of the Kissinger prize, which led to the unprecedented sight of Norway's beloved old King Olaf being pelted with snowballs in the streets of Oslo, the Turin newspaper La Stampa editorialized acidly that it was "an encouragement to those who would declare war only to be able to stop it again," which, with its implicit vice versa, is a pretty good encapsulation of the last Israeli-Palestinian prize as well.
3. For service to human rights. These may or may not have something or anything to do with peace, though the terms of Alfred Nobel's bequest do specify those 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." Few would doubt that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. honored the spirit if not the letter of this rubric, though it is hard to see how it applies to Agnes Bojaxhiu, more widely known to the media as Mother Teresa, who never claimed to be working for peace and who announced in her acceptance speech that the chief threat to world peace was abortion. By even nominating Carl von Ossietzky in 1935, when he was in a German concentration camp, and Andrei Sakharov four decades later, the Nobel committee may not have helped avert or shorten any war, but it did honor human rights and the human spirit. There is a growing case for a separate or specific prize that does just that, and only that.
4. For service to random but vague feelings of good will. You might have thought that 1946 would have been a good year for Mohandas K. Gandhi, known to Hindus as "the Mahatma." I might not agree, but I do think the first year of the postwar era was an absurd time to give the prize to Emily Balch and John Mott, the latter perhaps best known for his efforts as an international officer of the YMCA. The history of the peace prize is littered with such quaint absurdities, often weighted toward superannuated French and Belgian dignitaries, or overpoliticized groups like Amnesty International.
5. For fealty to supranational institutions and to the United Nations and its cadet or satellite outfits. The International Red Cross—which assumes that war is inevitable and has no position at all on "peace"—won the award in 1917, 1944, and 1963. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which necessarily makes the same assumption as a cleanup crew and second-responder, won in 1954 and 1981. The U.N. itself, under Kofi Annan's -secretary-generalship, graciously accepted the prize a few years ago as if—even after Rwanda and Bosnia—the recognition was no more than its due.
Friday's award to our much-admired chief executive falls into none of these categories but aims at satisfying the conditions of the first, the fourth, and the fifth. Answering a question that rather bluntly asked "Why?," Nobel committee spokesman Thorbjørn Jagland defended the choice of Barack Obama by saying, first, that the prize had often been intended to "enhance" the ongoing work of sitting heads of government, citing the precedents of Brandt and Gorbachev. He added, second, that the president's emphasis on the primacy of the United Nations was meritorious in and of itself. This, it has to be said, is ridiculous. Here we have the Nobel committee's first "virtual" award.
By 1971, when he was given the prize, Herr Brandt had already paid his imperishable visit to Warsaw and dropped to his knees at the memorial to that city's infamous ghetto. His Ostpolitik, or reconciliation with Nazism's former vassals and victims in the East, was a reality. It would have continued with or without a pat on the head from Scandinavia. Indeed, the year before he was chosen for the award, Germany's chancellor had been given another supreme if meretricious accolade, in the gift of an American newsmagazine that I need not mention, of being named "Man of the Year." Mikhail Gorbachev was garlanded in 1990, several years after he had made a historic agreement on disarmament with Ronald Reagan. (If you can picture Ronald Reagan getting an invitation to Oslo, your imagination is a great deal more vivid than mine.) So those examples—of moral and political courage given due recognition—might also hold in the instance of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin but are not even remotely applicable in the present case. Very well, then, what about the idea of encouraging future statesmanlike and peace--loving conduct? In this roseate conception, we have Barack Obama as Tom Cruise, praised and promoted for nipping crime in the bud by arresting people before they actually commit any offense. (A whole new slogan on which to run: "Tough on pre-crime"!)
We thus find ourselves in a rather peculiar universe where good intentions are rewarded before they have undergone the strenuous metamorphosis of being translated into good deeds, or hard facts. And it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid entertaining the suspicion that there is something explicitly political in the underlying process of Nobelista decision making. I do not think that I am shying at shadows here, either. Especially of late, the literature awards, on which I am more qualified to pronounce, have reflected the same or a similar mentality. The choices of an Italian anarchist, an Austrian Stalinist, a Portuguese Stalinist, and the hysterical anti-American Harold Pinter are or should be fresh in our minds, and we might remember that this is a Nobel committee that let Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges go to their graves unrecognized.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the choice of ex-president Jimmy Carter for the peace prize in 2002 was accompanied by statements from Oslo that said outright that he was being rewarded for his opposition to the foreign policy of an elected sitting president of the United States. (On that basis, Carter could have been given the prize for writing to Arab heads of state in 1991, urging them not to join the coalition against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait: an act of lawless annexation that involved the actual obliteration of a member state of the United Nations and the Arab League. Again, I find it difficult to imagine a Republican ex-president being honored in such a way for publicly undermining one of his successors.)
Conceivably the evenhandedness aspect can be overstated. Viewed over the long term, the Nobel "human rights" prizes, which so far don't actually exist under their own name, show a fair spread from Iran to Eastern Europe to Africa and beyond. But the task of the chief executive of the United States is more complicated than manifesting a vague and general sympathy for the oppressed. It is, in the last resort, to be a commander in chief, and to consult closely with an elected Congress on the grave matters of war and peace and security. If he manages to get any of this right—if, for a pregnant instance, he manages to negotiate a nonviolent transition to an Iran that has nuclear power but not nuclear weapons (and that perhaps allows its own people to intervene in their own internal affairs)—then he will have done very well, and will deserve much more than a medal and a large check. He is, however, unlikely even to get a hearing on these serious questions without the believable threat of American power and force, economic and diplomatic as well as military. Something in the mental universe of the Nobel committee is palpably hostile to the facts that underpin that consideration.
A case can be made that it isn't good for sitting presidents to get their recognition and their praise in advance of their actual attainments. A case could even be made that this isn't really the American hardscrabble, triumph-in-adversity way, of the kind that promises all sorts of honor to those who bear the heat and burden of the day, who show the scars of battle and struggle, and who have been tempered and fashioned in combat and adversity. As it is, President Obama has admitted in his own rather captivating books of autobiography that he feels pervaded by a sense of his own luck and good fortune. So, don't tempt fate by accepting a prize for a race you haven't yet entered, let alone won. Maybe, like Roman potentates of old, Obama should engage a servant who whispers to him on a regular basis to remember that he, too, is mortal. (Rahm Emanuel strikes me as the near-perfect servitor for that essential everyday job.) Meanwhile, just as he must already regret crossing the seas to try and hustle an Olympic deal for his adopted hometown, the president may live to wish that he didn't go all the way to Oslo to accept the unearned adulation of what Saul Bellow once called the Good Intentions Paving Company.