The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Chinese Liu Xiaobo its peace prize on Friday. Only they didn’t. China allowed neither Liu nor anyone representing him to travel to Oslo for the ceremony. So, his medal and the accompanying commendation were presented to an empty chair. This absence marked the first time that an honoree or representative was unable to accept the Nobel Prize for Peace in person since Count Carl von Ossietzky, detained in a concentration camp in Hitler’s Germany, was prevented from receiving the award in 1935.
But Liu wasn’t the only one not to make the trip to Scandinavia. Envoys from Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Venezuela, and Vietnam declined their invitations. So, too, did the Russian ambassador.
Russia objected to the Norwegian Nobel Committee honoring Liu on Friday. On Thursday, the Kremlin boosted the idea of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. “Public and non-governmental organizations should think of how to help him,” an anonymous source inside Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s office explained to Russian media. “Maybe, nominate him as a Nobel Prize laureate.”
Is it the Russian government’s practice to present awards to those who leak its state secrets?
Earlier this month, Russian gadfly Oleg Kashin experienced every journalist’s worst nightmare—not only becoming the story, but doing so by enduring a brutal beating by pipe-wielding goons. The shocking, video-captured attack made its way across the globe through YouTube and broadcast media. But the episode was hardly shocking to Russian journalists, several dozen of whom have been murdered over the last two decades. Russian journalist, like Mexican policeman or Iranian stripper, isn’t a particularly safe profession.
So why praise from the Kremlin for the likes of Assange?
Russia, in its present and past incarnation, has tried to politicize the Nobel Peace Prize. During the Cold War, it did this by preventing those from behind the Iron Curtain from accepting the award and by establishing an Eastern Bloc version of the prize.
As the Stalin Peace Prize from 1950 to 1955, the Soviet Union bestowed the award upon the likes of East German playwright Berthold Brecht and American entertainer Paul Robeson (both, predictably, Stalinists). Later, when Stalin fell out of favor in Moscow, the award morphed into the Lenin Peace Prize. Among the bellicose figures honored by the Lenin Peace Prize were Fidel Castro, Le Duan, an architect of North Vietnam’s invasion of the South and later the unified state’s leader who purged society of citizens who had been friendly with the U.S., and Guo Moruo, a Chinese government official so subservient to the Communist line that he affirmed the decree to burn his writings.
In other words, Russia’s imitation of the Nobel Peace Prize went to those most willing to push its line. If “peace prize” prefacing the names of Nikita Khrushchev and Angela Davis seems something out of 1984, then it is worth remembering that prefacing the words “peace prize” were the names “Stalin” and “Lenin.”
Two decades after the Lenin Peace Prize died with the Soviet Union, Russia, along with other authoritarian regimes, continues to attempt to undermine the Nobel Peace Prize. Boycotting the award presentation, and suggesting Julian Assange as a candidate, may hardly seem like acts that will persuade the Nobel Committee. But like so many organizations international in scope, the committee has been susceptible to political pressure and pleas for evenhandedness between good and evil.
Last year, the committee announced Barack Obama as the recipient of its prize less than nine months into his presidential term. Confusing their own hope for actual change, the committee’s citation noted President Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” They claimed, “Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics.” Similarly confounding, the committee honored Al Gore two years earlier with a peace prize for his work on climate change. What did that have to do with peace? If the theory of manmade climate change turned out to be firmly based, then there may be “greater competition for the earth’s resources,” which may lead to wars, Gore’s citation rationalized.
Though Obama and Gore had done little to advance the cause of peace, at least it wasn’t their pursuit of war—and by means condemned by all civilized nations—that brought them the prestigious honor. A low point came in 1994, when Yasser Arafat, longtime leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, won the award alongside Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. The Norwegian Nobel Committee had bought into an equivocation that put the same blame upon opposing sides of conflict. They similarly credited equally both sides for peace (even an illusory peace) when adversaries came together. An equal share for each side is mistaken for fairness, and thus, the committee has occasionally honored terrorists and Communist warmongers alongside genuine men of peace. Arafat’s kidnappings, hijackings, and suicide bombings made a farce of the award.
So, too, would bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize upon anti-American hacktivist Julian Assange. Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa, Andrei Sakharov, and so many other recipients of the award made life better for millions of people. Assange has made life easier for al Qaeda.
Blessed are the peacemakers—not the mischief makers.