Nobel as a Barometer
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


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It’s easy to criticize the Nobel Peace Prize, for incontestable decisions are few and far between in its history. This prize is a political barometer and an indicator of the state of affairs in the world.

As usual, the Nobel Peace Prize, the main political trophy in the world, is awarded on December 10. This year, it will be conferred on a Tunisian quartet – members of four NGOs that contributed to the transition from Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime to a modern pluralist democracy. This choice should be recognized as politically correct and practically faultless. The world is focused on the Middle East. Tunisia stands out against that nightmarish background as a bright spot and the only country where the Arab Spring was relatively successful. (Many will say that the night is still young, but then it’s all the more imperative to make haste and encourage this positive trend.) Civil society is always a less controversial candidate than any politician, past or present.

It’s easy to criticize the Nobel Peace Prize, for incontestable decisions are few and far between in its history. For all its drawbacks, however, this prize is a political barometer and an indicator of the state of affairs in the world. A look at the list of winners makes it possible to feel the global political atmosphere in this or that period.

Let’s look at the late 1980s and the early 1990s, which marked the big turning point in history. We see Mikhail Gorbachev, Aung San Suu Kyi, who fought against the Burmese junta, and the Guatemalan rights activist Rigoberta Menchu Tum. All is logical: it was an epoch of hope that the totalitarian and dictatorial regimes from Asia to Latin America would go and a new world order, fair and free from violence, would emerge.

The 1990s and the early 2000s saw an attempt to establish this new world after the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the USSR. The Nobel Committee awarded six prizes for the settlement of old conflicts: the abolition of apartheid in South Africa; the Palestinian-Israeli peace process; the bloodless separation of East Timor from Indonesia; the Ulster settlement; the beginning of reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula; and noted mediating efforts in different regions. Another four contemporary prizes were awarded to institutions embodying progressive thinking: the anti-nuclear Pugwash Conference, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Doctors without Borders, and the UN. Generally, this was consonant with the spirit of the times: the big problem had been solved and what remained to be done was to deal with the side effects, and here it comes, the brave new world!

The period after 2003 was marked by new moods, decline of the abortive “new world order,” erosion of governance, and an onset of chaos. The IAEA was the only organization that won the Peace Prize for its attempts to keep together the crumbling non-proliferation regime. Other winners were private individuals trying singlehandedly to compensate for the now degraded institutions: Iranian rights activist Shirin Ebadi, Kenyan Green activist Wangari Maathai, Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, inventor of the micro-crediting system, and Albert Gore, who symbolized the fight against global warming. If it proved impossible to create peace and prosperity from above, at least something should be done to support those facilitating this from below.

The 2008 Peace Prize was a sign of desperation. It was awarded to Martti Ahtisaari for his Kosovo settlement plan, which not only failed to be implemented, but also led to the unlawful independence of Kosovo. This, in turn, provoked the Georgian-Ossetian conflict.

The peace prizes awarded to Barack Obama in 2009, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010 and the European Union in 2012 were an attempt to influence the policies pursued by the main world players. While recognizing the role of major states, the Nobel Committee sought to encourage them to do something to repair the crumbling world architecture. Obama’s Peace Prize was an “advance payment” of sorts in expectation that he would bring something entirely new to the world. After all, he was himself an unprecedented phenomenon in US history. Well, he didn’t… Right now the peacemaker president is walking from one war into another. In case of the EU, the prize was either irony or a farce. The Norwegian Nobel Committee disgraced itself by not giving the prize to Jean Monnet, the great reformer of Europe who conceived the idea of modern integration. Jacques Delors, one of the wisest and most successful heads of the European Commission, during whose tenure a resolute step forward towards a new quality of integration was made, must have merited the award as well. But giving the prize to the EU and Jose Manuel Barroso in 2012, when the united Europe was rapidly sinking in a sea of problems, was a desperate gesture and an attempt to give a hand to a sinking man.

Neither institutions, nor persons, nor states are able to stop structural destabilization. Former principles are dwindling, whereas new principles are not to be found. Only the Ulster conflict can be regarded as fully settled, unlike the others from the 1990s whose solutions were hailed and rewarded and remain problematic. The peacemakers’ pride, Palestine, is a failed state that never had a chance to become a state in its own right. There is practically nothing left of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

International organizations have failed to restore their influence. Political folkways are tangled up. The fate of a Nobel Prize winner and ex-head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, is symbolic in this sense. He attempted to lead the opposition against an authoritarian regime in his homeland, Egypt, but his services proved redundant and he disappeared without a trace in the mist of Egyptian democracy. For the EU and Obama, see above. The 2013 winner – the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (“for a major contribution to solving this problem”) – is symbolic as well. In fact, this prize was awarded to Vladimir Putin, who had suggested an elegant plan for Syria’s chemical disarmament, which at that time made it possible to avoid an armed intervention. The OPCW was just lucky to have been nominated, for, generally speaking, hardly anyone had ever recalled that it existed.

The main nerve of world politics today is the relationship between the state and the global civil society in the person of omnipresent NGOs. Collisions happen increasingly often: WikiLeaks vs. the US Department of State; Edward Snowden vs. the NSA; Greenpeace vs. Russia. Linked by social media, the masses are against governments obsessed with the idea of control. A Pakistani girl and an Indian rights activist (winners’2014) are fighting against oppression of children and the youth. This year, we have the Tunisian quartet working for national reconciliation.

There is some logic in the prize being awarded to a person, event or phenomenon conciliating the abovementioned stand-off. After all, the outline of a new global system will largely be the consequence of how this conflict is resolved.

Alfred Nobel wrote in his will that the peace prize should be awarded “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.” The secret of the prize’s longevity is that world politics have changed but very little over the last 114 years. Solidarity, freedom and peacefulness are still in short supply.

Valdai Discussion Club