When the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Barack Obama, many, myself included, felt that the Norwegian committee had so embarrassed itself as to devalue the prize permanently. A Dallas service station sign, at the time, captured the sentiment precisely: "Free Nobel Peace Prize with Oil Change."
Jay Nordlinger's masterful new book "Peace, They Say" has changed my mind.
Not that Nordlinger dissents from the skeptical view of the 2009 prize or many others. But in his careful review of every prize and every recipient since 1901, he builds a case that the capacity of the prize to do good outweighs its mischief.
The mischief, without doubt, is infuriating. Nordlinger is pungent about the politicized prizes. The Norwegian Nobel committee, he notes, has used the prize repeatedly over the past decade to signal its contempt for one man -- George W. Bush. In fact, as Nordlinger writes, the award to Obama "could be construed as the fifth anti-Bush Nobel."
The first, in 2001, while New York was still smoldering after the al-Qaida attacks, had gone to the United Nations and Kofi Annan. (The peace prize has been granted to the U.N. repeatedly.) The message seemed to be: "the U.N. must have supremacy in any fight against Islamic terrorism."
The second anti-Bush prize went to Jimmy Carter in 2002. Leaving no doubt, the chairman of the committee explained that the Carter award "should be interpreted as a criticism of the line the current administration has taken. It's a kick in the leg to all who follow the same line as the United States." Nordlinger's review of Jimmy Carter's post-presidential antics is only for those with strong stomachs. I had forgotten, for example, Carter's gushings about North Korea and the "reverence with which they look upon their leader."
In 2005, the Nobel laureate was Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Why ElBaradei? He was known for whitewashing Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, for condemning Israel and the United States every day before his morning coffee, and for denying and excusing Iran's push for nuclear weapons. Fear of Iranian nukes, he said, had been "hyped."
Next, the Nobel Peace Prize went to Al Gore and the U.N. (there it is again) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And finally, to President Obama, who had only been in office a matter of weeks before being so honored. The prize seemed to say: "Thank you for not being Bush."
So how can you resist the urge to dismiss the whole enterprise as the squawks of leftist harpies? A few names suggest the answer: Andrei Sakharov, Liu Xiaobo, Lech Walesa, Norman Borlaug, Aung San Suu Kyi. And there were others. The Nobel Peace Prize has the capacity to make an instant worldwide celebrity. No other recognition carries so much prestige -- and that prestige can make a material difference. Lech Walesa said the prize changed everything for him, for Poland, and for the defeat of communism. "The Nobel prize blew a strong wind into our sail. Without that prize, it would have been very difficult to continue struggling."
The Nobel Committee honored a German prisoner of conscience in 1936, Carl von Ossietsky, when making such an award was not without risk. The Swedes were vexed with the Norwegians for an act they regarded as needlessly provocative towards Nazi Germany. The Germans were so angry that they forbade Germans from accepting any future Nobel prizes, including those for science and literature. It was a response that would be copied by other totalitarian states. The Soviets created the Lenin Prize to compete with the Nobel, and the Chinese initiated the Confucius Prize after Liu Xiaobo was honored.
"Peace, They Say" introduces a fascinating gallery of heroes, fools and dreamers. Every prize includes a story. Some are uplifting, some are galling, and others are poignant. Henry Kissinger, whose shared prize with Le Duc Tho was among the most controversial in the history of the honor, told Elie Wiesel on the occasion of the latter's 1986 prize: "I was not proud of my Nobel, but I am of yours."
Nordlinger is an engaging and wise tour guide, offering reflections along the way on the nature of peace and its maintenance, the folly of moral equivalence, and the pitfalls of disarmament. No one is better versed in the zeitgeist that produced so many groan-inducing prizes -- and yet Nordlinger makes a persuasive case that, on balance, the Nobel Peace Prize is a worthwhile institution.