What Was the Nobel Committee Thinking?

What Was the Nobel Committee Thinking?

No sooner had the Nobel Peace Prize been awarded to Barack Obama than countless observers around the globe were shaking their head in puzzlement or dismay. Sure, there was the Committee’s official line, praising Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” But that really didn’t shed much light on why the Oslo-based committee had bestowed the prestigious honor on a President who has been in office for less than a year. As Charlotte Lepri, a researcher with the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris, described her friends’ and colleagues’ reaction to the news, “People said, ‘Why? What did he do? The perception was the Nobel traditionally goes to people who have made accomplishments or considerable sacrifices for peace. So far, Obama is more a promise for what might happen.”

And like most head-scratchers right now, Lepri isn’t likely anytime soon to learn how the Nobel committee came to its decision — or precisely why. For all the attention focused on its annual award, the Nobel committee is a cloistered, enigmatic operation, as hard to read as the Soviet Politburo. While its website — the only source of information the organization provides to outsiders — broadly explains the nominating and selection process, it does little to illuminate inscrutable details like what criteria defines the eventual winner, and just who weighs in on the choice. Identities of non-winning candidates — and those who submitted their names, as well as the winner — remain secret for 50 years.

One of the few things the website does do is shatter assumptions that the five Nobel panelists who made the decision must all be white-haired Norwegian gentlemen so cut off from reality they could have never anticipated the shock their selection would cause. First off, four of the committee members are women, with chairman Thorbjrn Jagland, the only male in the bunch. Like Jagland — a former premier and foreign minister of Norway — most members have had held cabinet posts or have otherwise been involved in politics; their ages range from 58 to 68. But it’s hard to draw any theories about how that group works when the Nobel website also notes that in deciding the peace award, the committee is aided by “permanent advisers”, “Norwegian university professors with broad expertise in subject areas”, and occasionally “Norwegian and foreign experts”.

Meanwhile, if the criteria and selection process for the peace award appears a bit hazy, those in the other areas are far from uniform either. Notes Philippe Valode, a French historian and author of a book on France’s six Nobel winners in various categories; “Criteria for the scientific award are fairly clear and consistent, while those for economics are mostly firm — but open to subjectivity when social considerations factor in,” Valode says. “Literature must have broad messages and allure to world-wide readers, But — being about art — a lot of creativity goes into the selection process, too. When it comes to peace, the potential for artful innovation is greatest of all — as we’ve seen with Obama’s selection.”

Valode says that’s not new— and that almost all Nobel winners provoke debate, at times fierce. But he says the reason Obama has taken that controversy to new heights is because, in choosing him, the committee seemed to ignore the two main reasons the prize’s founder Alfred Nobel stipulated for awarding it. “Either the person must have embraced the cause of peace and obtained results towards obtaining it,” Valode recalls. “Or the person had to have demonstrated a commitment to peace through a lifetime of work for it. Obama hasn’t had enough time to accomplish much in general, and hasn’t even tried much with peace.”

Lepri, like most observers, thinks the move was entirely political. She calls it a show of support for a leader the committee and much of the world believes is taking the U.S. in the right direction — a new survey out earlier this week showed that the U.S. global image had soared in the past year — but who is meeting stiff resistance at home; indeed in his comment Jagland noted “we would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do.” Still, Jagland tested credulity of listeners when he stressed “we are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year.”

Valode is torn between two clashing theories. The first suspects the committee cynically sought to lift the award’s profile and restore some of its star-quality status, “and what better way of doing that than to give it to the most popular man on the planet today” Valode asks. Conversely, Valode says the committee may have gotten pragmatic by making a fundamental change in who it sees as most likely to promote and obtain peace today. “Previously, it was the charities, the non-governmental organizations, the brave diplomats who dared to believe,” he says. “Now, perhaps the committee has decided that it’s the powerful, the politicians who are most likely to advance peace when encouraged.”

Even in the peace prize’s home country, there was widespread disapproval of the choice — so much so that some critics suggested it was high time for Sweden, which manages all the other Nobel prizes, to take back the peace prize. “Obama said today that he was surprised and humble, and even that he did not honestly feel he deserves the prize,” Jan Gunnar Furuly, writer for Norway’s biggest newspaper Aftenbladet, said in an Email to TIME.” I think most Norwegians do not understand the decision to give Obama the prize, and a lot of us are really embarrassed over the fact that the committee could give it to the president after so short time. For a long time the Swedes have argued that they should take over the responsibility for the prize. Now they have really good arguments for that.” Echoing that sentiment, Jan Arild Snoen, columnist for the conservative Norwegian website Minerva, said, “To award the peace prize to a sitting president during a war which he not only supports but actually wants to increase troops for, is very peculiar. I think there is a danger that it will make Norway look silly.”

Perhaps that could be avoided if the committee decided to break with the past and give a real accounting of how it came to its controversial decision. But then again, that might not help either; after its choice of Obama, few people would believe what the committee has to say right now, anyway. — with reporting by Vivienne Walt / Paris
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