When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Stockholm in the
early 1980s, he expressed his disappointment to Stig Ramel,
then-executive director of the Nobel Foundation, «If you had
awarded me this prize in 1978, I would still be in the White
House.» Ramel made a helpless gesture and replied, «At the time
when the Camp David accords were signed between Israel and Egypt,
the list of nominees had already been finalized, and we could not
break the rules.» Had Carter won the 1980 U.S. presidential
election rather than Ronald Reagan, history might have turned out
But the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee had no qualms
about «meddling» in the U.S. presidential election campaign this
year. The decision to award Al Gore the prize fueled rumors that he
would be returning to politics.
The Nobel prize committee has repeatedly been the subject of
international criticism for its bias and political intrigues, but
it is a fairly accurate measure of the state of affairs in
international relations. Committee members vote for candidates they
believe to be promoting worthy causes.
From 1989 to 1992, the peace prize went to the Dalai Lama;
Mikhail Gorbachev; Aung San Suu Kyi, a prisoner of conscience and
leader of the Myanmar opposition; and Rigoberta Menchu, a
Guatemalan human rights activist. During the current period, which
is sometimes referred to as «the end of history,» there is
widespread hope that totalitarian and dictatorial regimes from Asia
to South America will be sent to the trash heap of history.
What is the result? Nothing has changed in Tibet and Myanmar.
The Soviet Union collapsed, but many new authoritarian and
semi-authoritarian regimes emerged in its place. South American
countries have organized fewer military juntas, but they have
embraced socialist demagoguery instead.
From 1993 to 2002, we saw many attempts to transform the world
order. Six Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded to individuals who had
been instrumental in resolving complex, longstanding conflicts.
These included the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the bloodless partitioning of
East Timor from Indonesia, a peaceful settlement in Ulster, the
start of reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula and the peaceful
resolution of many other international conflicts, for which Jimmy
Carter finally received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
How do those situations stand now? There are two success stories
— South Africa and Northern Ireland; one failure —
poverty-stricken East Timor, which survives only because it
receives charity from international donors; and one not entirely
lost cause — reconciliation between North and South Korea. But the
nations of the world have not reduced the nuclear threat, nor have
they become more humanitarian. More likely, just the opposite has
Now we come to the post-2003 period. The war in Iraq has turned
the triumph of the «world according to Uncle Sam» into a failure,
and the «new world order,» to which former U.S. President George
Bush referred in 1988, has yet to arrive. Awarding the peace prize
to the International Atomic Energy Agency — the only organization
to receive it in recent years — was an attempt to keep the nuclear
nonproliferation process from falling apart at the seams. The
remaining laureates are individuals who are laboring to achieve
goals that the weakened international institutions are no longer
capable of accomplishing.
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore, who has come to
symbolize the fight against climate change, is another sign of this
trend. Perhaps the decision by the Norwegian committee will breathe
new life into not only the environmental movement, but also U.S.
politics — and by extension, world politics.
The United States’ failure to achieve primacy in international
relations has been analyzed by just about everyone, including the
Americans themselves. And there is nearly universal agreement that
the world is now moving into a new, multipolar phase. Most people
welcome the transition, anticipating that it will usher in a fairer
and more equitable global order. Only one question remains: How
will it actually function?
The idea of a global system dominated by a few major players is
nothing new. Prior to the bipolar U.S.-Russian confrontation of the
Cold War, that is how major international politics were structured.
The great powers either opposed each other or entered into
alliances, whether temporary or long-term.
On the surface, governments often agree that we should all take
responsibility for the future of our planet. But when discussions
focus on solving a concrete problem in which one or more sides hold
a vested interest, mutual understanding often flies out the window.
The disagreement over Iran is a vivid example of this.
From the West’s point of view, Russia is obstructing the attempt
by the «civilized world» to coerce Tehran into giving up its
nuclear program. The U.S. Congress and mass media often accuse the
Kremlin of protecting Iran’s belligerent mullahs and their
half-witted president. And Moscow’s categorical «nyet» to the
deployment of U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which
Washington claims would help mitigate an Iranian missile threat,
further muddies the waters.
Tehran believes that Moscow is exploiting Iran as nothing more
than a disposable pawn in its cynical game with the West. Iranian
political analysts assert that it has always been unwise to rely on
Russia’s word. They point out that Russia has not followed through
on its agreement to build a nuclear power plant in Bushehr and
supply it with fuel. And Moscow’s offer that the U.S. make joint
use of its radar installations in Gabala in Azerbaijan and Armavir
in southern Russia to monitor Iranian rockets is a clear affront to
To be sure, Moscow is also unsettled about the prospect of a
nuclear Iran. In addition, the issue of how the Caspian Sea is
shared continues to be a divisive issue between the two
Nevertheless, Russia views Tehran much differently than the West
does. Israel, the United States and some European nations believe
that Iran is an unpredictable clerical state capable of doing
anything for the sake of religious dogma. And Tehran needs nuclear
weapons, they believe, so it can spread the «true faith.» Moscow,
on the other hand, believes that the modern-day successors of
Persia’s imperial past are interested primarily in becoming a
regional power, especially in the context of an increasingly
multipolar world. This, the Kremlin says, is the most important
reason why Tehran wants nuclear weapons and not to launch a nuclear
strike against the West.
Russia’s position should not be reduced to a primitive «for» or
«against.» The prospect of U.S. military intervention in Iran
scares Europeans no less than Russians. The problem is that the
political leverage of Russia and other world powers is much less
than they think.
At a time of global instability, it is regimes like Iran — and
not the major global powers — that come out the winners when the
superpowers get bogged down in political power struggles. But the
big players refuse to accept this fact. It is more pleasant for
them to believe that they are still the ones calling the shots.