The Man Behind the Nobel Prize

What might explain the laughable selections of Barack Obama and the European Union.

Thorbjørn Jagland is an ambitious man.  He's been in politics all his life, and has never really done anything else.  He joined the Workers' Youth League – the junior division of the Norwegian Labor Party – at the tender age of sixteen, and his star has been on the rise ever since.  He is now sixty-one years old, and has occupied pretty much every position of consequence in Norwegian politics – head of his party, president of the Parliament, foreign minister, and prime minister.

An impressive résumé.  Another man, at this point in life, might decide to shift gears – write his memoirs, start a foundation, sit on a couple of corporate boards, give lectures, teach, ski, golf, build houses with Habitat for Humanity, whatever.  Not Jagland.  Such a man is hard-wired to keep climbing higher.  But where to go next?  When you're a politician in a small country and you've already held every high office it has to offer, there's only one way to continue to rise: look beyond its borders.  Jagland's predecessor at prime minister, for example, went on to serve as Director General of the World Health Organization and (currently) as a UN “Special Envoy on Climate Change.”

So it is that Jagland, in 2009, accepted the position of Secretary-General of the Council of Europe – not to be confused with the European Council.  Unlike the European Council, the Council of Europe has no official connection to the EU and, unlike the EU, has no authority to make or enforce laws.  It's not a bad job at all – in fact, it's a very nice start for an ambitious politician who is starting to spread his wings beyond his homeland.  Still, a man of Jagland's ambitions can't help being acutely aware that it's not quite the pinnacle of power, either.

Fortunately Jagland has occupied another office, also since 2009, that could not be more ideally suited to his needs.  He's been the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which hands out the Nobel Peace Prize.  The first prize awarded under his tenure, it will be recalled, went to the just-elected U.S. president Barack Obama.  The selection of Obama, which was generally understood to have been Jagland's idea, quickly became a subject of international outrage and derision.  Yes, the Peace Prize had gone to some undeserving characters before – brutes like Arafat, apologists for the USSR, you name it.  But if Seinfeld was a show about nothing, the award to Obama was an award about nothing.  Even Obama was embarrassed: indeed, it may have been the only time in his life when he received something that he actually realized he didn't deserve.  Norwegian pundits, for all their love of the new occupant of the White House, were flummoxed: what had Jagland been thinking?

To some of us, the answer seemed crystal clear: Jagland had been thinking of Jagland.  What a wonderful way to curry favor with the most powerful man in the world!  What heights might Obama help Jagland to reach?  How could he ever, in the future, turn down a phone call from the man who'd given him the Peace Prize?  If, during Obama's tenure, the job of, say, UN Secretary-General should happen to fall vacant, and Jagland needed support in high places – just think of it!  The mind reeled.

To be sure, Jagland almost lost his Nobel job over the Obama prize.  Norway's Conservative Party and Progress Party both called for his resignation.  But he held tough.  In 2010, as if to make up for the Obama debacle, he actually awarded the prize to somebody meritorious: Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, whose selection, as Jay Nordlinger wrote in his indispensable history of the prizes, “gave China's democracy movement a big boost.” Of course, there are many other brave souls around the world whose selection by the Norwegian Nobel Committee would also do an immense service to the cause of freedom – men and women who have been imprisoned and tortured, in some cases for decades, by brutal tyrants in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  The annual Oslo Freedom Forum honors a couple of dozen such heroes every year: it's always a staggering, humbling experience to realize how much horror, and courage, there is in corners of the world you rarely if ever think about.  Nordlinger, in his book, points out that one eminently worthy candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize is the Cuban human-rights activist Armando Valladares.  But somehow one can't easily imagine Jagland – a vice president of the Socialist International who's on record as saying that Fidel Castro, as Communist dictators go, wasn't really all that bad – ever honoring a Castro critic.

In any event, the man has his priorities.  And this year, bless his heart, he's done it again.  If we thought that the Norwegian Nobel Committee could never make us laugh more heartily than it did in 2009, we were wrong.  On Friday, Jagland announced that the 2012 Peace Prize would go to the European Union.  Yes, the European Union.

The award isn't a bolt from the blue.  In a country whose citizens have voted twice against throwing in their lot with the EU – and who today are more heavily opposed to EU membership than they've been in a very long time (recent polls show only 12 to 29% in favor of joining) – Jagland has always been at the front ranks of EU boosters.  Back in 1990 he even wrote a book called My European Dream (a title that, fortunately, had not already been used by Napoleon or Hitler).  He's argued in the past that the EU deserved a Peace Prize – the (highly dubious) premise, of course, being that the EU has kept Europeans for decades from going to war with one another.  But Jagland had to have known that the timing of this prize would make it an instant laughingstock.

Indeed, a woman in Athens, asked by a reporter what she thought of the prize, replied: “Is this a joke?” The head of Britain's anti-EU party, the UKIP, commented: “This goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humor.” And Le Monde quoted French politician Jean-Louis Bourlanges: “it's not Europe that made the peace, but the peace that made Europe” – that peace being the Pax Americana.  In Norway, politicians and journalists have called the selection “ridiculous,” “an ego trip,” “a mockery of Alfred Nobel,” and have suggested either eliminating the Peace Prize entirely or passing the baton to the Swedish Nobel Committee.  Once again, there are calls for Jagland to step down.  In an interview with Aftenposten, a professor of law at the University of Oslo suggested that, ahem, it might not be a good idea for the same guy to be head of both the Norwegian Nobel Committee and the Council of Europe.

But some people aren't laughing.  For the EU's top brass, this award is a shot in the arm, a vote of confidence in tough times – and a reason to be profoundly grateful to Thorbjørn Jagland.  Let's face it: this fellow is crazy like a fox.  He knows exactly what he's doing.  The euro may or may not be on its last legs, but the EU itself isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  He's already bought off the President of the United States (for whose re-election, one imagines, he's fervently praying); now the boys in Brussels are in his debt, too.  How interesting it will be to see where Thorbjørn Jagland's career takes him next!  With friends like these, after all, the sky's the limit.

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