Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Other Nobel Controversy

What the recent uproar over the Nobel Committee chairman's lucrative new post says about Norway's peace prize complex.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The face of Thorbjørn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, was pasted all over the front pages of Norwegian newspapers this week -- though not because he awarded the peace prize last Thursday to an American president currently waging two wars. (That decision went over well in Oslo in the end.) What Norwegians were not so fond of was Jagland's recent acceptance of a post that comes with a tax-free salary of $380,000 a year, a mansion, and servants.

Norwegians love to save the world, but they are less comfortable being reminded that they are doing so from such a wealthy, privileged place. The evolution of the Nobel Peace Prize has always been a struggle about finding Norway's position among the countries of the world. And this year was no different.

The U.S. president's selection certainly created debate in Norway when it was announced in October. As happened elsewhere, Norwegian commentators deemed it too early for Obama to receive such an accolade; they questioned the logic of awarding the hallowed prize to someone simply for not being George W. Bush.

The face of Thorbjørn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, was pasted all over the front pages of Norwegian newspapers this week — though not because he awarded the peace prize last Thursday to an American president currently waging two wars. (That decision went over well in Oslo in the end.) What Norwegians were not so fond of was Jagland’s recent acceptance of a post that comes with a tax-free salary of $380,000 a year, a mansion, and servants.

Norwegians love to save the world, but they are less comfortable being reminded that they are doing so from such a wealthy, privileged place. The evolution of the Nobel Peace Prize has always been a struggle about finding Norway’s position among the countries of the world. And this year was no different.

The U.S. president’s selection certainly created debate in Norway when it was announced in October. As happened elsewhere, Norwegian commentators deemed it too early for Obama to receive such an accolade; they questioned the logic of awarding the hallowed prize to someone simply for not being George W. Bush.

The criticism was more or less silenced after the ceremony in Oslo, where the U.S. president’s speech was surprisingly well received. "Obama’s speech created a new common image of what until now had been seen as opposites — war and peace," wrote the daily tabloid Dagbladet. "Peace-loving Norwegians must understand that war may be necessary to secure the peace," commented VG, the country’s largest circulated paper. Jan Egeland, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and a former junior minister and U.N. director, went so far as to say that Obama’s Nobel lecture was "the most important ever."

Jagland, however, didn’t fare so well. Norwegians questioned his appointment as the general-secretary of the Council of Europe, a pan-European organization that has long been dwarfed in importance by the European Union. To Norwegian ears, earning twice what a Norwegian prime minister takes home, and not being taxed on it, is mildly suspect. Of course, Jagland bears no responsibility for the council’s special tax exemption, but it created a barrage of moral condemnation all the same.

The uproar over Jagland’s tax-free gig says something powerful about the Norwegian political mentality, as well as the logic behind awarding the peace prize to seemingly awkward candidates. The five-member Nobel committee is appointed by the Norwegian parliament, and the panel’s members represent core national values: Lutheran-inspired egalitarianism, with a bit of a missionary edge. The world would be a better place if everyone acted like Norwegians, most Norwegians think, sometimes forgetting the fact that is easier to be a lover of peace and harmony when you are filthy rich.

Norway’s wealth is relatively new, created by oil revenues that started pouring in during the 1970s. The values of the peace prize are more deeply rooted in Norwegian history. In his 1896 will, Alfred Nobel decided that the prizes should be awarded by his compatriots in Sweden, but made an exception for the peace prize. One of the reasons, it is alleged, is that Nobel wanted to save what was then a political union between Norway and Sweden. (He failed. The union was dissolved four years after the first peace prize was awarded.) But a second argument for giving the prize away in Norway was that it was a poor, but reasonably civilized country. A Norwegian committee would not be suspected of forwarding national interests, he reasoned. "Our foreign policy is not to have one," said the first Norwegian foreign secretary, Jørgen Løvland, in October 1905, four months after the country had declared independence. He wanted Norway to stay outside the rivalry of the great powers of that time.

Nobel’s theory worked for almost half a century. Norway was a neutral, remote, and mainly harmless country. The Nobel Peace Prize committee, appointed by the Norwegian parliament, consisted of frontbench politicians, including, for periods, the prime minister. They awarded the prize to a wide variety of candidates, a policy that has more or less been maintained to this day. In 1905, the prize went to Bertha von Suttner, an Austrian pacifist and friend of Nobel’s, who had encouraged the Swede to create a special peace prize. The following year it was awarded to the U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt.

The tide turned in 1936 when the prize was awarded to Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist and pacifist. Nazi Germany reacted furiously. As a direct consequence, Norway’s parliament changed the rules. No ministers should serve on the committee, the new rules stipulated. After World War II, during which the country was occupied by German forces, Norway gave up its traditional neutrality and became a member of NATO. The Nobel committee followed the spirit of the age and started giving the prize to a mix of representatives from international organizations like the Red Cross and various U.N. agencies, allegedly peace-seeking leaders like George Marshall and Willy Brandt, civil right campaigners like Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrei Sakharov, and more traditional idealists like Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. The committee’s talent of mixing celebrity with do-gooders (as well as the advent of television) gave the prize the status it has today.

The 1970s, however, saw a return to controversy with a number of the committee’s laureate picks. Henry Kissinger was named in 1973, just after his alleged involvement in the Chilean coup, for example. The Northern Ireland Peace Movement that won in 1976 failed to create peace and ended up quarreling about the prize money.

As a result of the debates and to emphasize the committee’s independence from the politics of the day the Norwegian parliament changed the rules again. Since then, the committee has consisted of politicians (rotating on a six-year basis) who have left office and is designed to mirror the political balance in parliament.

That may or may not have lowered the quality of the award, depending on whom you ask. Today’s committee members are, arguably, a motley crew in their late 50s and 60s who never really made it to the top as politicians. Inger-Marie Ytterhorn and Ågot Valle, representing the populist right Progresss Party and leftwing SV, respectively, had no governmental experience before being elected to the committee. Sissel Rønbeck had been minister for the Labour Party but retired from politics in 1993. Kaci Kullman Five, the present deputy head of the prize committee, was the chair of the Conservative Party and saw a meltdown of party support while she was in charge. In short, none of them are regarded as intellectual heavyweights.

And then there is Jagland, who is planning to keep his chairmanship. He has written a number of books on Norwegian and international affairs and boasts an impeccable résumé, rising from head of the Labour Party’s youth movement to prime minister in the late 1990s. He was, however, hardly a success and won notoriety for his many verbal gaffes. After the Labour Party lost office in 1997 amid a party rebellion, he withdrew and has been the speaker of the Norwegian parliament for the last four years but chose not to run again this year. He has occasionally been at odds with his own party, drawing questions about his loyalty. His thinking is mainstream, European social democratic, and hardly original.

The idea of giving this year’s prize to Obama was probably Jagland’s and/or that of the committee’s mighty secretary, Geir Lundestad. The latter, who has served as committee secretary since 1990, is a historian and an expert on U.S.-European relations. The main parts of the speech defending the choice of Obama (somewhat poorly presented by an extremely nervous Jagland at the ceremony) were written by Lundestad.

And it worked — at least for the Norwegian home audience. The most vocal complaints in Norway came from grumpy politicians bemoaning the fact that they were not invited to the banquet after the ceremony. Instead, a guest list dotted with celebrities gave the prize a much-needed boost to its prestige.

Next year, it’s a safe bet to assume the prize will go to a low-profile idealist. Still, there could be a surprise in store. The committee has already interpreted Nobel’s will to imply that environmental work helps promote peace. They may expand it again.

One potential winner would, however, not be a surprise. If the prize is awarded to the European Union during Thorbjørn Jagland’s chairmanship, it will be perfectly in line with his Europhilic philosophy. That would create a row in Norway, which has turned down EU membership twice in popular referenda. Such an award might even prompt withdrawals from the committee, as happened in 1994 when Christian Democrat Kåre Kristiansen withdrew because the prize was given to Yasir Arafat, whom Kristiansen viewed as an unreformed terrorist.

Awarding such a prize would really be controversial. But it would be a very Norwegian affair.

Kjetil Wiedswang is an editorial writer and political commentator for Dagens Næringsliv, a Norwegian business newspaper.

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