Don’t Give the Pope the Peace Prize

Francis may be a transformational leader, but so was Obama in 2009.


If the Norwegian Nobel Committee wants to honor another world leader beloved by the media for his aspirations as a peacemaker but who has so far failed to prove his credentials as one, then tomorrow Pope Francis will find himself the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The annual award will be bestowed on Friday, and five years after the committee awarded the prize to President Barack Obama during his first year in office, Francis, who has only held the papacy for a year and a half, is the leading candidate, at least according to the world’s leading oddsmakers.

But that isn’t going to happen.

Like with Obama’s first year, the early days of Francis’s time in office have spawned rapturous coverage of his many initiatives. He has been hailed as a progressive in a church whose hierarchy has been dominated by archconservatives. He has held out an olive branch on some of the most controversial issues facing the church, including indicating a greater acceptance of homosexuals. This has led many to conclude, including Foreign Policy, that Francis, a member of the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, might, in the Jesuit tradition, reorient the church to focus more squarely on issues of social justice and to use Rome’s considerable power to improve the lives of its followers in the here and now. 

In that sense, Obama and Francis are remarkably similar. Obama came to office promising to wind down America’s wars, renew its commitments to human rights, and rely more extensively on diplomacy to settle the world’s conflicts. For those promises, the Nobel Committee awarded Obama the top honor, suddenly elevating an untested leader on the basis of his words and not his actions to the level of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Six years after his historic election, Obama’s Peace Prize has become a bad joke — and an embarrassing stain on the Nobel’s reputation. Obama has expanded the use of drone strikes to prosecute the war on terror, a tactic that human rights activists say amounts to illegal, extrajudicial killings that often result in the deaths of innocent civilians. After pulling the plug on U.S. military engagement in Iraq, Obama has ordered American troops back, once again to fight Islamist militants — both there and in Syria. As for his commitment to use diplomacy to solve the world’s problems, Obama failed to strike a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, and it is highly uncertain whether he will be able to secure an agreement to end the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

All of which is to say that the Nobel Committee made a terrible decision in awarding Obama the prize in 2009. Indeed, Obama himself was uncomfortable with the award and spent his Nobel lecture outlining his views on how the use of force to advance the cause of peace can often be considered just.

Francis now stands at a similar juncture in his papacy. He has indicated that he will embark on the reforms that would move the church into the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean that he will be able to deliver. Most importantly, Francis hasn’t made a fundamental reckoning with the child abuse scandal that has rocked the church, and until he does so, it is highly unlikely that the Nobel Committee will give him the prize. (Although Francis has apologized for the scandal, victims advocates argue that the church hasn’t gone far enough in holding to account priests accused of child abuse.) If Francis, like his predecessors, ends up protecting child abusers in the church, how could the Nobel Committee in good conscience give him the award?

To be sure, both men have taken praiseworthy steps toward peace, but those actions don’t yet approach the achievements of many other laureates. Francis has called out the mob in southern Italy and convened meetings between Israeli and Palestinian leaders; Obama has helped drastically reduced the number of U.S. combat deaths and outlawed torture.  

So it’s certainly possible that Francis could receive the prize — the committee has made mistakes before. But consider this: In the years following Obama’s prize, which was met with immediate ridicule, the committee has made a series of conservative decisions. Obama’s Peace Prize was followed by Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese human rights campaigner. That choice was praised by pretty much everyone but the Chinese government. The next year saw a trio of female peace activists win, another uncontroversial move. The last two years have seen the award go to two important but distinctly unsexy institutions: the European Union and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

If the committee is looking to court controversy, which I don’t it think it is, Edward Snowden is a more likely recipient. And as it happens, the bookmakers have him as another possible winner.

For my money, I think this year’s prize will go to a combination of gay-rights activists. The committee is overdue to recognize the struggles of the gay-rights movement, and the last few years have seen a flurry of developments on this front. Although same-sex marriage is steadily advancing in the United States, Russia is cracking down on its sexual minorities. In large parts of Africa, the movement continues to face enormous hurdles, and discrimination against sexual minorities is rampant.

One last point: It is high time we ignore who is nominated for the Peace Prize. Like clockwork, every year brings predictable headlines about how one villain or another has been nominated for the prize. And that is because the prize has unbelievably loose nominating guidelines. Any parliamentarian and most university professors can just submit a name to the committee — and that’s enough to be nominated. The full criteria for who can nominate a candidate:

  • Members of national assemblies and governments of states
  • Members of international courts
  • University rectors; professors of social sciences, history, philosophy, law, and theology; directors of peace research institutes and foreign policy institutes
  • Persons who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Board members of organizations that have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Active and former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee; (proposals by members of the Committee to be submitted no later than at the first meeting of the Committee after February 1)
  • Former advisors to the Norwegian Nobel Committee

So of course Russian President Vladimir Putin was nominated this year. His cronies just had to write his name on a piece of paper and mail it to the committee.

Keep that in mind next time you see someone fulminating about the nominees.     

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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