The Peace Prize in Historical Perspective

On October 9, 2009, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize: President Barack Obama.  The initial reaction was largely one of surprise, followed quickly by criticism.  Some suggested that Obama should turn down the prize.  Others began to interpret the award as a non-too-subtle indictment of former President George Bush’s foreign policies.  However, a brief look at the history of the peace prize reveals that this recent decision by the Nobel Committee is only the latest in a series of deliberately provocative peace prize awards. 

The Nobel organization does not pretend to be unaware of criticism and controversy.  The organization’s official website [nobelprize.org] addresses the debate over the first American winner, President Theodore Roosevelt, whose 1906 award for his role in the arbitration of peace between Japan and Russia in 1905 seemed at odds with Roosevelt’s bellicose “big stick” rhetoric and imperialist tendencies.  Many of the early peace prize winners were representative in some way of an organized peace movement – Roosevelt’s prize was a clear deviation from the norm at that time.  By tapping Roosevelt, the Committee broadened its interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s instructions for the peace prize, which determined that the peace prize 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 of peace congresses.”  Over the years the Nobel Committee has continued to interpret Nobel’s language more expansively, in response to the changing world.   

After Roosevelt in 1906, the next American to win the prize was former Secretary of State Elihu Root, in 1912.  It is worth noting, as a window into the shifting meanings of the labels of “war” and “peace,” that Root served as U.S. Secretary of War (1899 – 1904) before being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Yet Root’s 1912 prize was considered non-controversial, due to Root’s work for Pan-Americanism as Secretary of State and his position as the first president of the newly established Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The urge to link the peace prize directly to those individuals or organizations explicitly connected to peace activism persisted in the years after World War I.  In 1919, the Peace Prize was awarded to the President Woodrow Wilson for his role in establishing the League of Nations, and numerous other winners in the interwar years were connected in some way to organized peace movements.  Likewise, during the Cold War, numerous peace prizes were awarded to individuals or organizations directly related to the United Nations.  The Nobel Committee continued to refine their interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s original intent, by focusing increasing attention on the cause of disarmament, human rights, and broader humanitarian work.  In 1970, the peace prize went to Norman Borlaug for his work on food production.  When announcing the 1970 award, the Nobel Committee explained, “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.” 

There were additional controversies as well.  Among the greatest criticisms of the Nobel Committee remains the omission of Mohandas Gandhi from the list of laureates. The Nobel Committee was criticized widely again for the 1973 award to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, the chief negotiators of a ceasefire agreement between the U.S. and North Vietnam.  Le Duc Tho remains the only peace prize winner to have declined the award.  The Nobel Committee anticipated criticism of their decision when announcing the award winners, especially since the 1973 ceasefire agreement had not yet resulted in a formal peace treaty at the time of the Nobel announcement, and they attempted to explain their reasoning:  “The Nobel Peace Prize is often awarded to persons who do not have direct responsibility or share in the responsibility for the policy of governments, for peace or war among nations. . . . But Nobel’s Peace Prize has also been awarded to persons exercising political responsibility . . . because in the course of their activities they had indicated the road that should be followed. No one could know whether this road would be followed; but they had lit a torch on the long and difficult road to peace among men.”

The Nobel Committee also recognized regional conflicts during the Cold War, as indicated by the 1976 award to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, co-founders of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement, and the 1987 prize to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias in 1987 for his role in orchestrating a Central American Peace Plan.  As Geir Lundestad, Director of the Nobel Institute since 1990, has noted, “Both of these awards could be seen as the intervention of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in conflicts where progress toward peace had definitely been made, but conflicts had been far from resolved. The committee clearly hoped that the prize itself would provide an added impetus for peace.”  Similarly, in 1994, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres shared the peace prize.  Awarded for the creation of a “framework” for peace rather than the attainment of “actual” peace, this award can be interpreted as another example of the way in which the Nobel Committee has provided incentive to continue to work towards peace.

Given this historical perspective, and the Nobel Committee’s consistent refusal to attempt to define “peace,” thereby giving themselves the flexibility to continue to interpret Alfred Nobel’s original intent to fit challenges, the Nobel Committee’s choice of Barack Obama appears far more consistent than initially thought.  In announcing the 2009 award, the Nobel Committee cited Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” and his efforts to shape “a new climate in international politics.”  All of which fulfill Nobel’s intent to draw attention to those who “work for fraternity between nations.”

[Note: Information for this essay comes from the fascinating website Nobelprize.org,  which includes acceptance speeches and other primary documents, as well as a number of articles of special interest, including Geir Lundestad’s essay, “The Nobel Peace Prize 1901-2000.”]