In a ritualized ceremony at Oslo City Hall later this year, two humanitarians whose names were little known until now will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Then, as tradition dictates, they will be honored with a torchlight parade. They deserve it. The Norwegian Nobel Committee chose well when it bestowed this year’s prize on Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor who has treated thousands of women raped during their country’s civil wars, and Nadia Murad, a young Iraqi who was enslaved by ISIS and is campaigning on behalf of her fellow victims.
At its best, the Nobel Peace Prize can shine a light on global problems that we normally ignore. This year’s laureates were cited for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” Yet not all laureates have been true moral leaders. Too often, the Nobel Committee has bestowed its favor on men of power rather than true peacemakers. Some laureates seemed deserving when they won, but later proved otherwise. A few were terrorists. When the Nobel Committee uses its prestige to empower passionate activists like this year’s winners, it does a great service. When it tries to shape global politics, it often stumbles.
Some Nobel Peace Prizes are given to dissidents who challenge repressive regimes, partly with the hope that they will be protected from abuse and allowed to play influential roles in society. That has rarely worked. Carl von Ossietzky, the German writer who won in 1935, was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and died in custody. The first Muslim woman to win, Shirin Ebadi, was hounded out of her native Iran after winning the 2003 prize and even suffered the indignity of having her prize medal confiscated. The Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo won in 2010, while he was in prison. He remained there until just before his death from cancer last year.
Three presidents of the United States have won the Nobel Peace Prize. None deserved it. Theodore Roosevelt won in 1906 for mediating an end to conflict between Russia and Japan, but his enthusiastic empowering of the Japanese military made it strong enough to attack the United States 35 years later. Woodrow Wilson also won for achieving a peace that seemed promising at the time — 1919 — but turned out to have set the stage for World War II and generations of colonial rebellions. The most recent presidential laureate was Barack Obama, who received the prize less than a year after taking office. Obama went on to bomb seven countries, authorize 10 times as many drone strikes as his predecessor, and join the attack on Libya that turned it from one of Africa’s most prosperous nations into a failed state and haven for terrorists.
The Nobel Peace Prize has been given to at least two political leaders who began their careers as terrorists: Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. To that list might be added the name of Henry Kissinger, the American statesmen who won in 1973 after helping to wreak more global havoc than Begin and Arafat ever imagined. This was the most bizarre choice in the prize’s 117-year history. Kissinger’s co-laureate, the Vietnamese revolutionary Le Duc Tho, refused to accept his prize in evident protest against the man who had helped devastate his country.
Some Nobel Peace Prize laureates turn out not to be as compassionate as they seemed. The most recent example is the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” In her new position as de facto prime minister of Myanmar, formerly Burma, Suu Kyi has accepted the expulsion and brutalization of her country’s Rohingya minority. Some have demanded that the Nobel Committee revoke her prize. No provision in its charter allows it to do so.
For all its misfires, the Nobel Committee sometimes does manage to play a clearly positive role in world politics. That happened in 1987, when it gave the prize to President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. Arias was trying to broker an end to civil wars in Central America, but the United States fiercely opposed his effort. His aides came up with the idea that a Nobel Peace Prize might provide enough momentum to seal the peace. They lobbied Norwegian diplomats and quietly made their case in Oslo and other capitals. The Nobel Committee became convinced that awarding the prize to Arias might help end wars. They were right. His strengthened prestige helped him persuade governments and rebel groups in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala to sign peace accords.
The Nobel Peace Prize can give voice to the voiceless while telling the rest of us something we don’t already know. Unfortunately, the Nobel Committee sometimes succumbs to the lure of politics. That has led it to make bad choices. We need more inspirational nominees like the ones who are about to be honored in Oslo, and fewer like Kissinger and Obama. Statesmen are always giving each other prizes. This one should go to their betters.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.