The Nobel Peace Prize Is a Joke

The toothless committee of unexceptional Norwegians has struck again. Hey EU! Kissinger and Obama are waiting to congratulate you backstage. Michael Moynihan reports.

Geert Vanden Wijngaert / AP Photo

In case you thought the crumbling, ineffective, and overly-bureaucratic European Union was on life-support, the Eurozone in danger of splintering, and the single currency on the verge of collapse, a group of unexceptional Norwegians would like you to remember that the 27 member states of the EU are, in fact, the global bulwark against war and misery.

But when the Nobel Committee announced in Oslo on Friday that it would award its 2012 Peace Prize to the EU, the room full of journalists reacted appropriately—with a chorus of Joe Biden-like guffaws and incredulous yaps.

It was an award for the entire continent, a thanks-for-not-indulging-genocidal-instincts-so-common-before-the-EU trophy. This was something like Time magazine’s decision to name “You,” its readers, as “Person of the Year” in 2006, though here there’s a million dollars of prize money attached (which works out to about .0027 euro per citizen).

Of course, there was no shortage of European politicians and bureaucrats ready to praise the committee’s sagacity. Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl said the choice was “wise and far-sighted,” underscoring the frequent presumption that the Norwegian committee offers prizes not based on previous accomplishments but expected future ones. In this case, the expected accomplishment is merely the rescue of Greece, Spain, Italy—that is, the entire European project.

The Norwegian committee—representing a non-EU member state—often does its part to influence political outcomes. In 1973, Henry A. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were waging a brutal and bloody war in Vietnam—one that had not yet ended when the prize was awarded—but the committee wanted to reward progress, if not exactly peace. Two warriors recast as champions of nonviolence, with the hope that they would at least take the hint. And what of awarding the prize to Yasser Arafat, who not only waged war on behalf of a liberationist movement, but was also rather fond of deliberate attacks on noncombatants (i.e., terrorism), like the 1972 murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics?

In other words, this prize was never strictly about “peace,” but rather the political result the committee expected and encouraged.

There is no better illustration of this instinct than the awarding of the 2009 prize to President Barack Obama, who, while not even a year into his first term, nonetheless impressed the Norwegians by not being President George W. Bush, despite extending large chunks of his foreign policy. Of course, wars continue, drones fall, Guantanamo is still in business, embassies are attacked, and American troops continue to fight a futile war in Afghanistan. So even by the measure of hopefulness, the Norwegians have been colossally wrong.

This history didn’t squelch the hosannas, such as that from European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, to whom the 2012 award demonstrated that the EU is something “precious,” and the award “justified recognition for a unique project that works for the benefit of its citizens and also for the benefit of the world.”

Others eschewed Barroso’s squishiness while still casting the honor as backwards-looking, a celebration of achievement and not expectation. The European Union, which was established in 1993, and its precursor organizations "helped to transform a once-torn Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a statement. According to Thorbjørn Jagland, the committee’s chairman, “today war between Germany and France is unthinkable” because of the EU.

This is sophistry of the first order. There are a number of overlapping and interwoven reasons for the relative calm of modern Europe, and none of them are related to the moral authority or peace-making capabilities of the European Union or the endless diktats emanating from Brussels. If one wants to honor those who brought peace to Europe, let’s be heterodox and suggest the American and British militaries and NATO deserve a rather large share of the credit for establishing and keeping the peace. In fairness, the United States wasn’t entirely forgotten by Mr. Jagland, who, when asked about the economic crisis ravaging many EU countries, responded, “It started in the United States, and we had to deal with it.” So there you have it. The peace of Europe, partially secured and underwritten by America, was the doing of the EU, but Washington and Wall Street did bequeath to Europe the gift of financial collapse.

There is, of course, no surprise that a committee of mediocrities in Norway has made yet another a laughably stupid and deeply ideological decision, like its previous awarding of the prize to the Guatemalan writer Rigoberta Menchú (later revealed to be a fabulist), or the lopsided decision to honor Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.

It is worth mentioning that the committee has occasionally selected the truly deserving, such as John Hume and David Trimble, who deserve fulsome praise for their efforts in brokering the Good Friday Peace Accords in Northern Ireland. But there seems in general to be a rather odd conception of “peace” in the bucolic Scandinavian nation. In the aftermath of the July 2011 mass slaughter by a right-wing nationalist in Oslo and Utøya, Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, founder of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo and the Journal of Peace Research (and routinely referred to as the founding father of “peace studies”), darkly suggested that the shooter was connected to Israeli intelligence and recommended his acolytes read the fraudulent anti-Semitic conspiracy book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

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Still there is a ray of hope in yet another Nobel embarrassment. The U.S. and European news media have so far been surprisingly indifferent to the decision, and after a brief spasm of mockery, most returned to analysis of Vice President Biden’s arm-waving and eye-rolling.

Even in Norway, websites of major broadsheets and tabloids didn’t exactly play up the award, mostly choosing to highlight the opinions of dissenters. (The tabloid VG travelled to Athens to record the baffled reaction of Greek citizens.)

After so many offenses against common sense, it appears that this yearly exercise in moral preening and wishful thinking is starting to lose it’s potency. As the Obama prize ably demonstrated—and Anwar al-Awlaki found out—it’s rather difficult for five Norwegians to change the direction of global policy. And besides, that one million dollar check to the EU won’t make much of a dent in Greece’s yawning budget deficit.