The Nobel Peace Prize Isn’t Worth A Warm Saucer Of Spit

Back on November 5, 2002 I started a little project called the Henderson Prize for the Advancement of Liberty. (I picked that day because it falls on my birthday, not because of Guy Fawkes Day.) The March 31 winners are announced here.
I’ll post some commentary on the prize later this week. For now I want to reprint the October 14, 2002 post that inspired creation of the prize. I have essentially two criticisms of the prize. First, it awards intentions before results have been achieved. Second, there is no rigid definition of “peace” stated in either the name of the prize (as in a hypothetical “peace and freedom award”) or in the Nobel guidelines. The committee often fails to distinguish between the short-term peace of appeasement and the long-term peace that is a byproduct of liberty, and it sometimes uses “peace” synonymously with something that it is not, like “fighting for liberty” (re: Shirin Ebadi) or “improving the physical human condition” (re: Norman Borlaug). Until long-term peace and liberty can be tied to them, what they really deserve now are a Dissidents Prize and a Screw Paul Ehrlich, I’m Saving People’s Lives Prize, respectively.
For the record, if the Nobel committee were ever possessed to give me the prize, I’d take it. It comes with a nice chunk of prize money, and I would love the opportunity to contribute to the Nobel foundation’s permanent archive of Nobel laureate acceptance speeches.
And now, on with the feature presentation.


Now that Jimmy Carter has received the Nobel Peace Prize for 2002 (see here for a list of all Nobel laureates), a lot of people think the prize is losing its respectability – especially after Fidel Castro offered his congratulations. I have news for those people – the prize was a joke from the beginning.
The first prize was shared by Jean Henri Dunant, founder of the International Red Cross (which itself won the prize several times over the years), and Frédéric Passy, founder of the Société francaise pour l’arbitrage entre nations. Passy had founded an earlier “peace society,” the Ligue internationale et permanente de la paix, a vain attempt to avert war between France and Prussia. In France’s Chamber of Deputies he opposed colonialism and pushed for disarmament and international arbitration of disputes. The French peace evangelist died in 1912, two years before World War I proved that the European peace efforts of that time, his included, were on the wrong track.
Passy is representative of one of the chief failings of the Nobel committee: it often gives the Peace Prize to people or agencies for offering peace plans that have yet to be tested. Many of the early prizes were given to people involved with peace organizations. After WWI, the committee demonstrated that it had not learned its lesson. In 1919 it gave the prize to President Woodrow Wilson for founding the ill-fated League of Nations. Five others received the award for their work with the League, at least one of whom fought for disarmament. Two Nobel Laureates of that time were Aristide Briand (1926) and Frank Billings Kellogg (1929), whose drafted the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a treaty that outlawed war.
After outlaw nations Germany, Japan, and Italy were defeated by the Allies, the Nobel Committee continued to dole out Peace Prizes to people who talk about peace more than they implement it. Cordell Hull (1945) was one of the first of several to win the prize for work with the United Nations, an agency which over the years has waged a sort of diplomatic cold war against the United States and Israel. Ralphe Bunche was the first to receive the prize for negotiating nonexistent peace in the Middle East. Disarmament – a concept which should have been discredited in 1914 and 1939 – would continue to attract the wooing of the Nobel committee, in 1962, 1982, 1985, 1995, and 1997. And untested peace processes would still be honored, as illustrated by the honoring of Nelson Mandela and F. W. DeKlerk (1993) and John Hume and David Trimble (1998).
So who was the first mouthpiece for murderous regimes to become a Nobel laureate? That would appear to be the only person in history to decline the prize: Le Duc Tho (no biography available). He and Henry Kissinger were awarded the prize for the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War. Kissinger wrote an acceptance speech that was read by US ambassador to Norway Thomas R. Byrne, who represented him at the award ceremony. The message contained this remark: “Certain war has yielded to an uncertain peace in Vietnam. Where there was once only despair and dislocation, today there is hope, however frail.” If Kissinger could get an award for peace that might come in the future, can I get an Academy Award for a movie I might direct in the future? (I’d like to thank the Academy for hypothetically granting me this honor, and Cameron Diaz and Edward Norton for their possibly outstanding performances.) Ironically, Le was the honest one of the pair. He knew that North Vietnam wasn’t giving up on its plans to conquer the South. His job was to get the US out of the way so the NVA could march into Saigon as it did two years later. If Kissinger didn’t understand that, he was utterly naive.
At least two other such thugocrats would receive the prize. Yasser Arafat (1994) is the most obvious, a man who talks peace with the West but organizes terrorism with his comrades. The other is Rigoberta Menchú. In 1992, coincidentally (?) 500 years after Columbus’ subjugation discovery of the Americas (or at least the Caribbean portion), she was honored for raising awareness of the alleged abuses against her fellow Guatemalan Mayan Indians. David Horowitz reported the research of anthropologist David Stoll, whose book reveals the fraudulence of I, Rigoberta Menchú, the Marxist-feminist’s autobiography which is required reading at many universities. Horowitz writes:

As a result of Stoll’s research Rigoberta Menchu has been exposed as a Communist agent working for terrorists who were ultimately responsible for the death of her own family. So rigid is Rigoberta’s party loyalty to the Castroist cause, that after her book was published and she became an international spokesperson for indigenous peoples, she refused to denounce the Sandinista dictatorship’s genocidal attempt to eliminate its Miskito Indians.

“Yeah, but what about Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Andrei Sakharov, Mother Teresa, and Lech Walesa? And don’t forget about the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).” Okay, so there’s a few good apples. But the roster of Nobel Laureates is dominated by ineffectual stabs toward promoting peace, and a handful of stabs against it. To judge the award by the worthy few who won it is like judging a factory that produces 90% scrap by the ten percent products it manufactures correctly. The award is meaningless.

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4 comments

  1. Steve

    Most such “prizes” awarded using arbitrary criteria (or none at all) are meaningless or, at best, arbitrary. A prize given to the best math student in a class can use objective criteria.
    Some of the Nobel Prizes given for literature, physics, chemistry, economics, et al, will be judged by history to be equally arbitrary in nature and as historically unsound as those you suggest for Peace. Look up the list of Prize winners for literature sometime and see how many names you don’t recognize.
    You appear to advocate some measure of success be involved to be a valid recipient. We know from science there are only certain absolute facts known, and that they themselves may prove temporal in nature at a later date, while existing as the building blocks for advancing science.
    Richard Feynman’s theories on nanotechnology and computer systems date to the 1950’s, yet we don’t have a practical, working computer based on that technology. Billions have been and continue to be spent to build the first practical device.
    Maybe it’s wise he only received the one Prize (shared with two others) for his work on quantum electrodynamics. Or maybe that should have been delayed until other areas of quantum physics (nuclear and elsewhere) not yet proven, are resolved? (I’m not a scientist.)
    Prizes of most sorts exist for some arbitrary purpose. You mention percentages and apparently are suggesting your short list at the end? What criteria does the short list meet? Is there some inherent characteristic they have which requires no explanation?
    Your “short list of good apples” seems not that much shorter than those you say were poor choices so I have a problem with the percentages mentioned. In fact some you select as “bad choices” (apparently) could be the subject of considerable discussion individually and some on the “good” list questioned.
    Does Feynman get the Prize someday for nanotechnology, or does the then current CEO of IBM? Why not Woodrow Wilson for the League of Nations, a failed organization, which in concept becomes a success in the year 2239 through the formation of the League of Solar Systems?
    I don’t disagree with your conclusion, but that’s only because I believe all the Nobel Prizes are questionable in value and merit. The theory is interesting. The real intent has nothing to do with the individuals involved but is to serve as a means of holding up certain “good works” to the world as a means of advancing Peace, Literature, Physics, or whatever, foster their development, etc.
    Your article points out the fact that any such benefits may be self-defeating if poor or short sighted selections are made. I don’t know that “better” ones are available under any criteria. And which is “better,” a selection like Lech Walesa, whose role in Liberty, Peace, or whatever, may prove to be important at the time, but barely a footnote in history, or a Woodrow Wilson, whose concept of a world peace organization someday might prove of some historical importance?
    Will Jimmy Carter be remembered for his failed economic policies at home and foreign ones during his administration, or for setting the precedent of some organization providing oversight to democratic elections? Or will he or Wilson be remembered at all?

  2. Alan K. Henderson

    Scientific achievement produces two types of results: increasing our understanding of the physical universe, and using such knowledge to invent new stuff. Regarding freedom, liberty and peace are the “invention” and philosophy is the “science.” Philosophy deals with ethics and sociology – what is right and how humans will respond to specific social arrangements. The increase of knowledge about the physical universe is reason alone for scientific achievement; new inventions are icing on the cake. Philosophy is valuable solely for its applications.
    The League of Nations failed because its membership included nations whose imperialist governments did not respect individual liberty and rule of law; you can’t build peace with countries that don’t want it. (Alliances with evil empires had been tested in the past, and they failed every time.) As for Carter, well, there’s nothing all that revolutionary about appeasing bullies.

  3. Steve

    Alan: Interesting comments. Don’t know how my other suggestions to your later post will fare.
    I see nothing wrong with the analogies I drew. If you were to read Richard Feynman (highly recommended; interesting; good stuff) you’d note that science does not always make discoveries which are correct, and they may or may not lead to the advancement of good science. In fact they can delay new discoveries because of their imperfections.
    Science is useful for its applications no differently than a philosophy of any sort, i.e., political or ethical. An act of some sort which may seem to be in support of “good philosophy” today can well turn out to be a failed or poor one tomorrow. We see that in the evolution of philosophy. Today, you and I may think that some sort of philosophy I’ll vaguely refer to as “libertarianism” is a good thing. And inevitablish each age throughout the history of philosophy has thought they’ve touched upon the right answer, come to The right conclusions about ethics or something else.
    Yet those beliefs evolve over time and large parts may be swept away. Certain acts of individuals or groups may appear wholly conistent with a philisophy but “go wrong” (if there’s a problem in the near term) or be complete wrong (to later generations).
    The League of Nations failed for a good many reasons as has the United Nations. To assume that the idealistic expectations were themselves flawed works best with hindsight. The idea that nations of all sorts would have discourse regarding problems and be able to work things out peacefully, is not necessarily a flawed idea, or didn’t seem so to much of Western Europe at the time it was ratified, but in retrospect it indeed proved to be very flawed. The “concessions” that France granted to Wilson, if one studies the original process, can be seen to have been agreed to because there were other stipulations that the French could see leading to its failure.
    Wilson was neither a stupid man, nor were his supporters. What they were, among other things, was incredibly gullible and susceptible to the machinations to the devious leaders of Western Europe (or so some would claim today).
    Uh, Jimmy Carter is not on my list of favorite people either. 😉 But the fact that he has had some personal accomplishments in the area of overseeing democratic elections, seems in itself to have some merit. You’re judging him in the whole context of what he’s done. Fair enough. That’s how I judge him as well as he failed miserably in his relatiions with Iran, among a good many other problems during his presidency and since that time.
    You’re making an argument, it appears, which I don’t see in this post or in your later one about the Henderson Prize (definitely a better, but also imperfect suggestion 😉 that the individual (or group) must be essentially chaste in all matters, doing only good, never any wrong. Kissinger got the U.S. out of the War in Vietnam. That was his intent and nothing more. No one I knew at the time thought the “peace” would be lasting. He also got his boss into difficulty in a few areas. Then there was the great breaktrhough in which Nixon and Minh broke break and drank wine together, breaking a stalemate of many yearrs between the U.S. and China.
    Now we could go down Henry’s list of “accomplishments” but alas would encounter some failures as well. And while the Paris Peace Conference was generally a fraud, he got the job done for the U.S., he accomplished other things, such as the important breaking of ice with China, but he had a string of failures as well. He doesn’t get the Prize? It took two years for the North Vietnamese to capture Saigon as I recall. Does that make him a “peace hero” for two years and, due to the limited or non-existent import, make him ineligible?
    I recommend Feynman because he’s one of the few scientists I can understand. My world is also one of polticial history and philosophy, but I think it works well for all of us to understand a bit how science actually functions and works. Were I smarter or better informed, I would be able to go back and pick winners of the Noble Prize for Physics which were “poor choices” as well. Their science, like the politics or ethics of other winners, had a poor basis, was poorly or improperly formed, and failed as the result. I find it too easy to criticize a Wilson or Carter in retrospect, even a Kissinger.
    As elsewhere noted a Lech Walensa may have seemed at the time very important to us, instrumental in what occurred, but as we get along further in history and look back at Soviet Communism we see that it appears to have been self imploding all by itself. So possibly history will judge his contributions, even in Poland, as having not been all that signifcant or important.
    Historians of science or ethics or “peace” don’t award prizes. People of the present do. Therein lies the rub. 😉

  4. Who Tends the Fires

    WE didn’t fall – the sonofa “News”man pushed us…

    The Word for the Day is: Scrofulous… We have a WINNER!!! LC Steve, KotE guessed Air Force One with Harrison Ford giving the Presidential speech from our Pop Quiz yesterday. Your Official Radio Free No-Prize is in the mail, Steve….