Review Essay: Who Deserves the Prize?

The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted
By Fredrik S. Heffermehl. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010. 239 pp.

By Metta Spencer (reviewer) | 2011-01-01 12:00:00

On December 10 Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—at least nominally. He couldn’t actually collect the money, the citation, or the medal because he was in prison for demanding that the Chinese government improve its respect for human rights. His absence set off a world-wide flurry of journalistic commentary—so dramatic that I got up at 5:00 am to watch the ceremony. Yet as I listened and read, I sensed that the journalists were overlooking several relevant issues.

By chance, on that same day I was reading Fredrik Heffermehl’s book, preparing to review it here. Heffermehl is a Norwegian lawyer, peacenik, and gadfly who never gives up on an issue that he believes in. You may feel hammered by his relentless legal argumentation, but you can’t help respecting the guy for his principles. I even came to agree with him. (See his article on page 10.) Nevertheless, although Heffermehl addressed some of the issues that the world press had neglected, there were other concerns that he also omitted in his book. After reviewing it I’ll turn to the complexities that haunt some peace activists, but apparently no mainstream journalists.

The Book

Heffermehl is a good storyteller and Nobel’s life makes a great story. When he died in 1896, his will specified that 94 percent of his fortune should be used to fund a series of prizes for those who confer “the greatest benefit on mankind” in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. (In 1968, a Swedish bank would endow a prize in economics, which is awarded along with the other five prizes each year, though it is not, strictly speaking, a Nobel prize.)

Heffermehl recounts Nobel’s process of deciding to create the peace prize. His immense wealth initially derived from his work in the family trade—arms manufacture—but he was a brilliant inventor who created more powerful explosives, especially dynamite. Nevertheless, he was viscerally opposed to violence and sometimes expressed a hope that, when weapons become too terrible to use, humankind will put an end to warfare.

Given that preoccupation, he met exactly the right person with whom to carry on such a discussion: a young Austrian woman named Bertha Kinsky. He hired her in Paris in 1876 as his secretary/housekeeper, but he had to leave Paris after a week and a few days later she also departed—for her secret wedding to Arthur von Suttner. Nevertheless, that week with Nobel was the beginning of a twenty-year friendship in which their frequent correspondence would provide the impetus for his peace prize.

Baroness Bertha von Suttner would become known as the greatest champion of peace of her era. She authored a famous book, Lay Down Your Arms, and a journal of the same title, and was a tireless promoter of peace conferences and organizations. Nobel was no pushover when debating about peace. He was not readily convinced that peace could yield practical solutions to international conflicts, but he made it clear that he’d give generously to the cause if truly persuaded. He certainly fulfilled that promise.

In his will Nobel’s approach to peace naturally reflected the thinking of the activists of his day, who shared a single goal: general and complete disarmament. The will rewarded efforts to prevent international wars. Nobel himself did not describe it as a “peace prize” so much as a prize for “champions of peace.” Apparently it was meant mainly to fund peace activism; indeed, one of the early recipients was Bertha von Suttner herself.

Nobel stipulated only three grounds for receiving the prize. It should be awarded to the person who “shall have done the most or the best work [a] for fraternity between nations, [b] for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and © for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Whereas the other prizes would be awarded in Sweden, the peace prize would be administered in Norway (which was still under the Swedish crown) and awarded by a committee of five people chosen by the Norwegian parliament. Norway has an unusual history as a non-militaristic society and at that time, its parliament reflected a peace orientation that matched Nobel’s own.

Unfortunately, that would not always remain the case. Soon a tendency emerged to refer simply to the award as a “peace prize”—and “peace” is a far more vague and elastic term than “champion of peace.” It is possible to construe all sorts of benign humanitarian deeds as manifestations of peace, going far beyond the precise three criteria that Nobel listed. And there are plenty of willing recipients who can be said to be fostering peace by their charitable or governmental careers.

Moreover, as Heffermehl points out, each laureate is chosen, not by the community of peace workers themselves, but by professional politicians. Soon it was even decided that the peace prize committee members would be appointed by Norway’s political parties, roughly in proportion to their representation in parliament. Over time, especially after World War II and the Cold War, most politicians came to doubt Nobel’s ways of pursuing peace, and the members of the committee now feel no particular obligation to fulfill his intentions rather than their own. For example, Norway is a member of NATO, and as such its leading politicians do not favor disarmament, as Nobel intended by rewarding people who work for the abolition or reduction of standing armies. Instead, they mainly believe in keeping a military establishment that is prepared for war. Accordingly, no contemporary activist is likely to win the prize for crying out, as Bertha von Suttner did, “Lay down your arms!”

Heffermehl shows that the Nobel committee frequently violates the terms of Nobel’s will—changes that he, as a lawyer, calls “illegal.” I have to agree with him. It seems reasonable to expect that, if I leave my life savings for a particular project that I specify clearly, the executor of my will should have to abide by my instructions. Wouldn’t you feel the same way?

To be sure, circumstances change; if I leave money for research on polio, for example, and then a cure is found for it, some legal steps should be taken to reallocate the money to, say, research on AIDS or tuberculosis. But that is not the situation here. Disarmament has not been achieved. It and the other two forms of peace work are still valid approaches and should not be superseded. The executors of Nobel’s will are simply diverting the funds to projects that they prefer. In recent years, for example, the prize has been awarded for planting large numbers of trees in Africa, for starting micro-financing schemes to help poor people set up small business enterprises, and for calling the world’s attention to the climate crisis.

Heffermehl is not arguing against the value of these activities. He is simply writing as a lawyer, insisting that Nobel’s will should be administered in accordance with his instructions, to reward the three types of activities that he specified. But compliance with the will has become unusual since the end of World War II, with over 60 percent of the awards since 1951 being unjustified, in Heffermehl’s estimation. He lists the entire array of laureates, the grounds for honoring each one, and his own appraisal as to whether each award conformed to Nobel’s criteria.

He has been scolding the committee members publicly for several years, without, however, influencing their practices at all. Nor is the public concerned about the violation of Nobel’s plan. Whenever a new laureate is chosen, the world press focuses on other criteria for appraising whether the recipient is deserving or not. Ordinarily, even peace activists have mixed feelings and divided opinions.

And so do I. Therefore, I want to turn to the other considerations that make such appraisals more difficult than Heffermehl’s book suggests. Indeed, if there were no legal obligation to execute Nobel’s will faithfully, we would still confront several other big questions that crop up all the time.

The Problems

First, apart from the legal question about Nobel’s will, how far should the notion of “peace work” be stretched to encompass other vital aspects of human security? Does it make sense to call work on climate change, poverty reduction, and reforestation “peace” work? Or are we diluting the concept if we apply it to projects that do not involve the reduction of armed violence and international conflict? Is it “peace” work if we help a family resolve its private quarrel with a neighbor? Or if we wage a campaign against violent video games? Or if we develop hardier varieties of wheat and rice for a “Green Revolution”? Or if we nurse the sick and dying in Calcutta’s slums? These are excellent, benevolent activities but—apart from the debate over Nobel’s will—do we want to call all of them “peace work”?

There is no objective answer. I tend to stretch the term “peace work” a little rather than apply it narrowly. For example, the editors of Peace Magazine often have to decide whether a submitted article is relevant to peace or whether we should reject it. We’ve increasingly included articles about the climate crisis and social justice. (See, for instance, the review in this issue of Linda McQuaig’s book about wealth. It’s not really about peace, but it’s about a problem that generates societal conflict, so we have included it here.)

But there are limits. Thus Peace Magazine usually rejects articles encouraging “inner peace” through some particular spiritual or psychological discipline. We would lose too much focus. And as for the Nobel prize’s focus, I wish there were a peace prize as Nobel defined it narrowly, plus a different prize for people who address social justice or environmental issues. It would be easy to classify potential nominees into the two categories—with one exception: those working on human rights.

Nobel’s will excludes awards to activists who defend human rights and democracy—which I consider intrinsic aspects of peace. Occasionally there are situations in which no blood is being shed because people are too oppressed even to claim their own rights; we do not call that condition true peace, but slavery or tyranny. By the same logic, an activist promoting responsive governance, the rule of law, and the protection of minority rights should be honored as a champion of peace.

Nevertheless, whenever we do honor such brave people, we are often faced with a dilemma: Our gesture may seem offensive, rather than “fraternal,” to the state that is depriving its citizens of their rights.

This issue arises even more commonly than when peace prize laureates are being selected. Whenever we confront an adversary—someone whose behavior thwarts our own aspirations—a peace worker wants to induce him to change. We have a better chance of succeeding if our relationship is friendly, so we try to address the conflict without jeopardizing the friendship. In hope of sustaining “brotherhood with our enemies” we may soft-pedal our differences and refrain from criticizing our adversary at all.

Yet this approach is questionable. Surely honorable persons stand up for their own values.

Accordingly, the Nobel committee has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to recognize human rights activists with the prize. They have often given the prize to an imprisoned democracy activist as a way of shielding him from further abuse by his government. Unfortunately, the award (sometimes conferred in absentia, as in the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, and Andrei Sakharov) has not always—maybe not even usually—protected the laureate from further abuses. Every abusive state regards such awards as a deliberate insult to itself. Instead of improving the “fraternization among nations,” the award in such a case will exacerbate tensions or even precipitate violence. Such a decision is a dilemma.

Sometimes we can moderate our criticism of an abusive state by the way we say it. For example, in the early 1980s I used to visit the Soviet Union as part of a peace delegation. At these round-table dialogues in Moscow most Canadians avoided all mention of human rights, on the assumption that broaching the topic would antagonize our Soviet counterparts. I regarded that approach as unacceptably craven, but I did manage to discuss civil liberties in a friendly way. Nobody got angry. Indeed, some of the Soviet participants secretly shared my views. But I was lucky. It doesn’t always work out so well.

Some recent recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize are skillfully working toward “fraternity among nations.” Barack Obama’s popularity came from his attempt to “reset” the relationship between Russia and the United States, and for reaching out in a friendly way toward all Muslim states. Yet he hasn’t succeeded much yet and most brave pro-democracy activists in Russia feel betrayed by his weak support of their cause.

The new laureate Liu Xiaobo, from his jail cell, assures us that he “has no enemies,” even among his persecutors in the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama says much the same thing toward the Chinese; he too deserves the prize for fostering brotherhood among nations, while nevertheless speaking up for his people and his principles. He tries to combine the two contradictory approaches.

Still, it hasn’t worked for the Tibetan leader either. There is no guarantee that one’s adversary will either want friendship or recognize it when it is offered. The Chinese government today is profoundly offended by the Nobel Committee’s choice of laureates.

Yet I must admit that I watched the Chinese over-reactions gleefully. So transparent in their craving global respectability, they clearly writhed in misery over this insult, and retaliated petulantly. They were correct in saying that the prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo as a way of criticizing their violations of human rights. And they had it coming.

A few peace workers took their side, maintaining that the prize did not foster fraternity among nations, but just the opposite. The insult, they predicted, will make fraternity among nations more difficult, and thus actually may impede democracy in China. Never, they said, should the Nobel Committee have given Liu Xiaobo that prize!

Peace workers should not dismiss this argument out of hand, though I don’t think we can accept it. If we don’t, how can we pursue friendly relations while vigorously promoting our own principles?

My answer is influenced by something I once heard the mediator Roger Fisher say. He was standing at a blackboard, teaching us how to negotiate with an adversary, whether we were a diplomat writing a new treaty or just a customer dickering with a salesman over the choice of a new TV set. Fisher drew a vertical line on the board and on the left side began listing factors that affect the quality of relationships. (Examples: Spending time together socializing; sharing emotional feelings, joking; offering help; or expressing concern.) On the right side, he listed the substantive factors about which we are negotiating. (Say, in the customer example, the price of various TV sets; their size and quality; how soon one can be delivered; how long the warranty will last.)

Fisher advised us to work on improving both sets of factors—the relationship and the substantive issues—but never, ever, ever to trade off a factor on one side for a factor on the other side. You can improve your relationship by offering expressive and personal changes. You can improve your substantive deal by offering to settle for a lower quality TV set, say, in exchange for quicker delivery or for a long warranty, etc. But never try to buy a substantive advantage by manipulating some aspect of your relationship. You must deal with your relationship in its own terms. You must deal with substantive issues in their own terms. Don’t mix the two; that’s dishonorable. I have found Fisher’s advice priceless as a formula for strategically negotiating combinations of relationships and basic principles.

Upholding Our Own Principles?

Democracy and human rights are principles of immense substantive importance. I want China to release Liu Xiaobo and other dissidents from prison and adopt strong civil liberties, political pluralism, freedom, and legal protection. Those objectives are on the right side of the line. They are the substance of our conflict with China (and other adversaries, including Islamists and Putin’s Russia).

On the other side of the line are the aspects of our relationship with these countries. To work on that, we can visit with the Chinese, for example, play ping-pong together again, and become friends on Facebook. But we must not trade off our friendship for our substantive principles. If we care about human rights—and we do—we must work for them and honor other champions of peace who are working for them, possibly even with a Nobel prize.

Admittedly, this answer may seem facile. Honest people can disagree as to whether the prize should be awarded to human rights and democracy activists. That issue is a genuine moral dilemma. Fortunately, it ma;y be the only conundrum left about the prize. Apart from the fraught question of honoring human rights dissidents, many of us can agree with Fredrik Heffermehl that the criteria specified in Nobel’s will should still be followed today.

Reviewed by Metta Spencer, editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2011

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2011, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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