Dangerous Prize

Nobel victories have a poor track record of producing change. Here's why.

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

If Alfred Nobel expected that the peace prize given out in his name every year would lead to world peace, it’s safe to say that he’d be disappointed. Of course, that’s far too high a standard, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to damp down extravagant expectations. But every year, the Nobel committee’s choice is subject to extensive scrutiny, and not infrequently, controversy and second-guessing follow.

And for good reason: The Nobel Peace Prize’s aims are expressly political. The Nobel committee seeks to change the world through the prize’s very conferral, and, unlike its fellow prizes, the peace prize goes well beyond recognizing past accomplishments. As Francis Sejersted, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the 1990s, once proudly admitted, "The prize … is not only for past achievement. … The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account [because] … Nobel wanted the prize to have political effects. Awarding a peace prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act."

It is therefore fair to ask whether the Nobel Peace Prize has changed the world. The committee has insisted that the award works in subtle but perceptible ways to advance the winners’ causes: by raising the profile of organizations and problems, by morally and politically bolstering the forces for peaceful conflict resolution, by attracting international attention to repression, and perhaps ultimately by facilitating pressure for liberalization.

But these claims have never been substantiated or, for that matter, carefully investigated. In fact, when one digs a little more deeply into the evidence, one discovers that often, as skeptics would expect, the prize has little impact on the awardees and their causes. Occasionally, but more rarely than its advocates hope, it draws attention to ignored problems. But more troublingly, the peace prize has often brought the heavy hand of the state down on dissidents and has impeded, rather than promoted, conflict-free liberalization.

These perverse consequences have become more prevalent as the prize committee’s definition of "peace" has broadened since the U.S.-Soviet détente and especially since the end of the Cold War. The peace prize was first awarded in 1901, five years after Nobel’s death. Nobel’s will defined peace narrowly and focused on candidates’ accomplishments: The prize was to be awarded "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." Between 1901 and 1945, 33 of the 43 prizes went to those who promoted interstate peace and disarmament. Only once did the committee seek to effect change in a state’s internal politics — in 1935, when it honored Carl von Ossietzky, the journalist who served as a symbol of opposition to the Nazi regime.

Since World War II, however, the committee has strayed far from its original mandate. Between 1946 and 2008, only one quarter of the prizes (17 of 69) went to those promoting interstate peace and disarmament. An increasing number of awards (16 of 48 since 1971) sought to encourage ongoing peace processes — in line with a traditional understanding of peace — but they often intervened in processes that had born little fruit to date or still had a long road ahead. At the same time, the awards increasingly equated peace with overall human well-being.

Even more striking has been the peace prize’s growing focus on domestic political arrangements, especially regimes’ disregard of individual liberties and democratic institutions. Between 1946 and 1970, the prize was awarded twice (9.5 percent of the time) to domestic dissidents. Between 1971 and 2008, it was given 10 times (21 percent) for this purpose, and at a slightly higher rate since the end of the Cold War. Here the links to interstate conflict, and arguably to intrastate conflict too, are even more tenuous. Prize winners such as Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi might be admired for their courage, but their awards do not recognize substantial contributions to interstate or intrastate peace.

Finally, the committee has increasingly given the peace prize to honor the awardees’ causes, even when their aspirations are not matched by concrete accomplishments. The prize’s advocates plausibly suggest that these awards can help set the international agenda, draw attention to marginalized causes, and kick-start stalled efforts. This was former Czech President Vaclav Havel’s stated goal in nominating Aung San Suu Kyi.

"Aspirational" awards are the best place to look for evidence of the peace prize’s alleged effects. When the prize is given to individuals or organizations for past accomplishments, the award’s effects are difficult to gauge because the recipient normally has a well-established track record and further successes cannot be attributed persuasively to the award.

But the 27 aspirational prizes awarded since 1971 have accomplished far less than the peace prize’s advocates would have us believe. In many of these cases, the media glare was already intense. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the prize had much of an effect on international media coverage of South Africa’s transition from apartheid (1993), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (1994), or the troubles in Northern Ireland (1998).

In cases in which the media was not already saturated, there have been some legitimate successes — notably Aung San Suu Kyi, whose 1991 award seems to have drawn attention to the Burmese predicament. But a survey of headlines in LexisNexis’s database of "major worldwide newspapers" reveals little evidence that the Nobel Peace Prize has typically boosted international media coverage beyond the short run. I found this to be true of the Dalai Lama and Tibet (1989), Rigoberta Menchú and the Guatemalan Civil War (1992), and Shirin Ebadi and reform in Iran (2003), among others. Although the award can boost the personal prominence of individuals with low global media profiles (such as Ebadi or 2004 winner Wangari Maathai), their causes nevertheless seem to continue to languish.

If the Nobel Peace Prize were merely ineffective at drawing attention to the recipients’ causes, we might dismiss it as a harmless daydream. But the award can have very real negative effects on the movements and causes it seeks to honor.

This is not true of all the Nobel Peace Prizes. Of the aspirational awards handed out between 1971 and 2008, five honored contributions to general peace and disarmament, nine aimed to advance incipient peace processes in specific intrastate and interstate conflicts, and nine sought to promote domestic change in favor of human rights and democracy. In the first two categories, there is little evidence of perverse consequences.

The third category, which is growing ever more prominent, is more troubling. The Nobel committee has sought, through its awards, to highlight political repression and human rights violations in the hope that the brighter media light will lead authoritarian governments to behave better and even take painful steps toward democracy. The assumption has been that regimes from the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union to apartheid-era South Africa to Deng Xiaoping’s China to junta-controlled Burma are sensitive to their international reputations as "good" or "responsible" states.

Please. In fact, though prizewinners themselves are often spared, regimes have clamped down hard on local dissidents to demonstrate resolve and prevent local and international activists from taking heart. To the extent that the Nobel Peace Prize has been successful in drawing worldwide attention to their plight — or to the extent that the regime believes it will — it has rendered insecure regimes even more anxious and thus more brutal and dangerous. After the Dalai Lama was honored in 1989, the Chinese government undertook a vicious crackdown in Tibet. Political imprisonments skyrocketed, and even traditional, nonviolent forms of celebration, such as burning incense and throwing tsampa (flour) into the air, were forbidden. Government cadres charged with countering Tibetan "splittism" in monasteries and nunneries were expressly ordered "to condemn and campaign against the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama." Similarly, the Burmese regime interpreted Aung San Suu Kyi’s prize as the international community’s "bullying our country, threatening our country." In response, it rounded up student leaders, shuttered colleges and universities, harassed opposition and ethnic party officials, and launched an all-out military assault against pro-democracy rebels and ethnic insurgents.

Moreover, insofar as local activists think that the Nobel Peace Prize confers moral authority and that the international community has signaled that it will protect them, they have ramped up their demands and their protest activities, intensifying the regime’s fears of encirclement and provoking greater repression. Ironically, were the Nobel committee’s loftiest aspirations fulfilled — were the prize to embolden local actors, boost global media coverage, and pressure authoritarian regimes — it would produce effects precisely the opposite of those it intends, with moral victories substituting for actual ones.

More ironically still, even though the Nobel committee’s aspirations have not been fulfilled, these effects have followed anyway because state leaders have taken the prize all too seriously. Whether the prize actually sets the international agenda, authoritarian leaders often act as if it does, and they have consequently sought to undermine dissidents’ candidacies. When the Soviet government learned in 1973 that physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov had been nominated, it ordered the KGB to launch a futile action to prevent him from being named. From communist China to war-stricken Guatemala, authoritarian regimes have feared the prize, even when they should not. And recipients and their causes have paid the price. Winners have become the victims of campaigns of character assassination, as Sakharov and his wife Yelena Bonner learned. They have become targets of government harassment and repression: Once Aung San Suu Kyi won the peace prize, boosting "her name and her aura" as one Western diplomat put it, the Burmese junta could no longer ignore her. And their supporters, lacking the prestige that the prizewinners enjoy, have suffered even more.

In short, in these cases, the Nobel committee’s noble intentions have set off a tragic chain of events. When awarded to promote domestic change, the Nobel Peace Prize has in fact mobilized the forces opposed to liberalization. At the same time, it has raised the spirits of liberal reformers, leaving them exposed precisely when state leaders are feeling most vulnerable and are thus most likely to apply the state’s power to repressive ends.

When the Nobel Peace Prize rewards past accomplishments, it is to be welcomed — not because it changes the world, but because it celebrates and reaffirms liberal ideals. But in the increasingly frequent cases in which it is bestowed for actors’ aspirations and in which it seeks to promote democratic political change, winners beware.

Ronald R. Krebs is the Beverly and Richard Fink professor in the liberal arts and a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is writing a book about the effects of violent conflict on democracy, including in Israel.

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