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It’s rather astonishing that although the Peace Prize has been awarded to dozens of dubious characters and organizations, it retains immense prestige – and power. The prize to the Dalai Lama (1989) put the Tibet cause on the map. The Nobel for Liu Xiaobo (2010) “gave China’s democracy movement a big boost.” The cause of Burmese democracy “is known because of the Nobel prize” to Aung an Suu Kyi (1991). Lech Walesa (1983) says that his prize “blew a strong wind into our [Solidarity’s] sail.” But why, Nordlinger asks, has there been no Peace Prize for a champion of Cuban democracy, such as Armando Valladares? Alas, Fidel Castro is more likely to win a Peace Prize than is any Cuban anti-Communist. Of the nod to Gorbachev (1990), Nordlinger says – truthfully – “There have been worse prizes.” But, he goes on to ask, why no laurels for Solzhenitsyn, Havel, John Paul II? If Gorbachev, why not Yeltsin? (I’d have preferred Yeltsin, but he was too low-rent for the Nobel folks.) What about Ronald Reagan, who played no small role in ending Soviet Communism? Or the U.S. armed forces, which have been the chief guarantors of international peace since the end of World War II? (Even Obama, in his Nobel remarks, pointed out that the U.S. “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”) But no one, of course, has ever seriously expected either Reagan or the U.S. military to win a Nobel Peace Prize. NATO? Sorry. Norway’s not about to quit NATO – but neither is the Nobel committee about to pay it tribute.
No, the committee’s international organization of choice is the UN. Peace Prizes have gone to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (1054, 1981), UN Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjöld (1961), UNICEF (1965), the UN Peacekeeping Forces (1988), the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (2005) and the UN itself, along with Secretary-General Kofi Annan (2001). The reality of the UN – its staggering levels of corruption and incompetence, the acts of mass rape committed by its “peacekeepers,” the impotence of the blue helmets at Srebenica, etc., etc. – none of it has yet to make a dent in official Norway’s reverence for the idea of the UN. In much the same way, the Nobel committee didn’t really care about the reality of the “peace” that came to Vietnam after the end of the war – a “peace” that, of course, involved the systematic murder of about a million people. “Nobel peace laureates were not apt to talk about these things,” Nordlinger laments, “or issue ‘appeals’ concerning them.”
Nor was the Nobel committee. During the Cold War, it repeatedly crowned laureates – such as Alva Myrdal (1982), the proudly non-aligned “doyenne of Scandinavian social democracy” – who “were proud to occupy” the “middle ground between the Free West and the Soviet Union,” positioning themselves at what Nordlinger calls “the exquisite center.” In 1986, the New York Times reported that the committee deliberately sought to “balance” its awards – pleasing the Kremlin one year, the White House the next. Then there is the particularly egregious case of Evgeny Chazov, co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (1985). After the announcement of the IPPNW’s prize, it emerged that Chazov was one of a group of Soviet scientists whose denunciation of Sakharov had “launched the official campaign of persecution” against the great physicist and human-rights activist. The Nobel committee was – or pretended to be – nonplussed by this information, taking the line that (in Nordlinger’s paraphrase) “[s]ome things are more important…than human rights for individuals, and IPPNW is concerned about the survival of the whole planet.”
More than a few laureates have been useful idiots for the Soviets. Emily Greene Balch (1946), a Quaker pacifist, called Lenin a “democrat.” Arthur Henderson (1934), “the human symbol of disarmament efforts,” said in his Nobel lecture that the USSR “is devoted to peace, abhors war, and sincerely believes in the ideal of world union and world cooperation.” As Nordlinger notes, Henderson “represents the cast of mind that has often won the peace prize – right up through the present day.” (Briefly put: disarmament good, armies bad.) No fewer than three Nobel Peace Prize winners also won – and gladly accepted – the Soviets’ s0-called Lenin Peace Prize. Linus Pauling (1962) was nothing less than a Soviet “darling” who, reports Nordlinger, “was prouder of the award from the Soviets than he was of the award from the Nobel Committee,” and who, on his many visits to Mother Russia, “gave no indication” to his Kremlin buddies “that he was troubled by being in a country with a vast system of slave-labor camps,” even though “[a] little fuss from Pauling would have been huge.” In Oslo, Irish nationalist Séan MacBride (1974) extolled the USSR: “You would never know from this Nobel lecture,” writes Nordlinger, “that the Soviet Peace Council and its congress were shams.” Nelson Mandela (1993), accepting his 1990 Lenin Prize in 2002, openly lamented the fall of the USSR. As Nordlinger puts it, there’s something wrong with supposed heroes of peace taking awards “from an unelected government dedicated to controlling human beings by violence.” (Interesting statistic: while the Peace Prize has been presented three times to anti-apartheid activists, it’s been awarded to “[o]nly two persons in the general anti-Soviet struggle” – Sakharov and Walesa.)
Throughout his book, Nordlinger is judicious yet generous, bending over backwards to find kind things to say about one less-than-golden winner after another. Though criticizing Betty Williams, he credits her with being “noble” and “very, very brave.” While dismissing Réné Cassin’s (1968) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he says that Cassin, “in a variety of ways, was a great man.” As for Amnesty International (1977), Nordlinger plainly shares Salman Rushdie’s exasperation over its “moral bankruptcy” and its inability “to distinguish right from wrong,” but declares that “it still accomplishes some good.” He is even kind to Obama (2009), whose prize he manifestly recognizes as absurd but whom he praises for his “graceful handling of an awkward situation.”
For generations now, the inefficacy – the sheer, dangerous folly – of things like unilateral disarmament, nuclear freezes, and hard-core pacifism has been proven again and again. And yet the scales have never quite fallen from the eyes of the Norwegian Nobel committee. When Tony Blair set off to the Middle East to try to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said to George W. Bush: “If I win the Nobel Peace Prize, you will know I have failed.” A canny comment: Blair knew that so many Nobels go to pretty words, to “peace agreements” that are nothing but words on paper. Indeed, Nordlinger notices an interesting, and amusing, detail in a comment recorded in 1947 by the then chairman of the Nobel committee. Rationalizing the fact that he and his colleagues had not bestowed the prize upon Gandhi that year (Gandhi would die in 1948, before another chance to honor him came around), the chairman confided to his diary that “we have to bear in mind that Gandhi is not naïve. He is an excellent jurist and a lawyer.” The obvious implication here, as Nordlinger wryly points out, is “that naivety is an asset for a Nobel peace candidate.” And who, after reading Nordlinger’s incisive, engaging book, could disagree?
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