PARIS — The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. So, it would seem, is the road to the Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement Friday morning that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is this year’s honoree could not be a more perfect example.
Yes, he reached an agreement with the interminable and apparently undefeatable cocaine-fueled rebellion by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army). But the actual Colombian people, far from prizing the deal, voted it down in a referendum last Sunday, if, indeed, they voted at all. So the war may well go on and on, and very likely get uglier and uglier.
In living memory, the committee in Oslo has awarded intentions over results any number of times. So, too, in this case. Santos is the winner “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians and displaced close to six million people.”
Often the point is to encourage peacemakers still in the process of resolving conflicts, and certainly the altruism of a Martin Luther King Jr. deserves recognition, but too often those awards have been based on cockeyed optimism, especially when they come in the midst of prolonged and bloody wars.
Thus Henry Kissinger, as brutal a practitioner of realpolitik as we’ve seen in the last 70 years, shared the 1973 prize for peacemaking in Vietnam, laying the groundwork for Hanoi to win a complete victory, conquering and occupying America’s erstwhile allies in Saigon in 1975.
Then there was the 1994 award to Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for “their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.” That didn’t work out so well, especially after an Israeli terrorist murdered Rabin the following year and Arafat eventually launched a new and bloody “intifada.”
One of the more embarrassing prizes lately was to President Barack Obama, who won it “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” A nice sentiment, certainly, but at the time he hadn’t even been in office a year, and two terms later many of his “efforts”—especially in the Syrian bloodbath—have faltered badly. Nor does his record of using drones to blow away terrorists around the world, whether real or just suspected, bespeak a solid commitment to pacifism.
It’s the Colombian case, however, that best exemplifies persistent problems at the core of high-profile peacemaking and the prize that is supposed to encourage it.
One of the first and most obvious issues is that while the demands of combatants are accommodated, the plight of victims is often put aside.
The FARC kidnapped and ransomed many thousands of people over the years, and compensation for them and their families was not part of the deal. The military and especially the paramilitary groups that fought against the guerrillas often were corrupt and savage in their own right. Who will help make their victims whole? No one.
We have seen the same in other countries where “peace and reconciliation” may have led to a settlement among the amnestied fighters (previously known as terrorists and tyrants), but did little to help those innocents relegated to the category of “collateral damage.”
Extortion and the international drug trade, in which the FARC remains a huge player, earned the guerrillas so much money that the commanders sometimes quite literally did not know what to do with the garbage bags full of $100 bills that cluttered their headquarters. That money, now well hidden around the world, was left untouched by the deal.
The FARC made some demands to try to support their self-image as altruistic revolutionaries, and in so doing challenged the status quo powers in Colombia. One of the key points that made it into the accords was a plan to examine property titles and bring a more equitable distribution of agricultural land to the rural peasantry. That would have threatened many of the richest people in the country, whose abuse of the system is well-known.
That the FARC would get an automatic 10 seats in Colombia’s parliament, whether its representatives had won elections or not, was another point that rankled. In a close vote, those representatives could easily become dealmakers or breakers.
Tellingly, those who have lived closest to the fighting voted overwhelmingly for the peace agreement. But they were defeated in the nationwide referendum, especially in cities far from the fighting, like Medellín, where people convinced themselves that the FARC was buckling under the pressure of military offensives backed by billions of dollars of U.S. support. So the idea of more war, for those in safe urban areas, is not so onerous.
Even with all these flaws, Santos might have been able to sell the deal to a voting majority of the public if he were—well, if he were someone else. But Santos is a famously wooden public speaker, “anti-charismatic” says one negotiator who has watched him closely. And he failed to marshal the kind of political backing on the ground that was needed.
Even the conservative Catholic Church in heavily Catholic Colombia, rather than embracing this peace encouraged parishioners to vote against it.
With misjudged and missing popular support, Santos looked for plaudits from abroad. He held a globally publicized ceremony after the deal was announced—but before the referendum—that brought such luminaries as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Cartagena. Also there were President Raúl Castro from Cuba and Foreign Minister Børge Brende of Norway, the two countries that served as “guarantors” for the peace agreement. (Oslo had a stake in this accord just as it did in the Israeli-Palestinian one 22 years ago.)
Colombians are famously and fiercely nationalistic, and all these white-guayabera-clad foreigners, whatever their titles, did little to encourage support of the agreement. “It was very arrogant,” as one resident of Medellín told The Daily Beast this week.
Indeed, looking back, that word seems uncomfortably appropriate for so many of these prizes funded by the fortune of the man who invented the dynamite and the high explosives that brought truly industrial carnage to the battlefields of the world.
It is, simply, arrogant to think you can impose peace on people by wishing it to be so. As the cynical Franco-British versifier Hilaire Belloc wrote a century ago in his famous couplet “The Pacifist”:
Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight, But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.
History—including Nobel history—shows us peace is most likely to come after decisive victories or mutual exhaustion or both, which is pretty much what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s, but only after hundreds of thousands of people had died.
That’s an ugly fact, and we might well wish it otherwise. But that does not make it less true. When it comes to stopping a war, the prize of peace, as opposed to the Peace Prize, is not a matter of intentions and abstractions. It is a matter of politics, power, and action.