The Nobel Prize for Posturing

So you’ve probably seen the news already. Last week, the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has only just begun work in Syria in an attempt to enforce a Russian-brokered agreement to destroy the Assad regime’s chemical weapons.

The Nobel Peace Prize stopped being something we could take seriously a few decades ago—about the time they gave one to Yasser Arafat for temporarily decreasing the number of people he killed, and definitely when they gave it to Barack Obama just for showing up. But somehow this year they managed to plumb a new low.

To begin with, giving the prize to the UN inspection group is a cheap and unconvincing evasion. The chemical weapons team had nothing to do with brokering the Syria deal. Giving the award to them is merely the Nobel Committee’s way of avoiding giving it to the man who was really responsible: Vladimir Putin.

But Putin isn’t a politically correct recipient. He has a little too much blood on his hands—in Chechnya, in Georgia—and is responsible for a few too many jailed dissidents and persecuted homosexuals. So instead the Nobel Committee gave the award collectively, and therefore anonymously, to a bunch of inoffensive bureaucrats at the UN.

Actually, when you think about the proper recipients of this prize, the people who really “earned” it, it becomes quite the comedy, a real opera buffa. John Kerry should share the prize for proposing the idea—in a gaffe that was promptly disavowed by the White House. Vladimir Putin should share the prize for brokering it—on behalf of his brutal client state, in a notable victory for the friends of tyranny in the bare-knuckles world of international politics. And Bashar Assad should share the prize for magnanimously approving the deal—in exchange for a de facto guarantee that the West won’t intervene against him, leaving him free to kill the next 100,000 of his citizens in more conventional ways.

But the real point of this award is that it was once again given on spec. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons hasn’t eliminated Assad’s stockpiles of chemical weapons. It has only barely arrived in Syria to begin the attempt. Similarly, Barack Obama had barely moved into the Oval Office when he got the award. And it is not well remembered now, but the 1994 Peace Prize was given to Yasser Arafat (and to his Israeli partners), not because the Oslo Accords were going well, but because they were falling apart. The common thread is that the Nobel Committee likes to give the award as a form of wishful thinking, hoping that by “sending a message,” they will encourage the recipients to do what the Nobel Committee sees as the right thing. But this is the triumph of hope over experience. Remember that in 1973, the Peace Prize was awarded to Le Duc Tho (and Henry Kissinger) for negotiating the cease-fire that allowed the US to withdraw from Vietnam. Tho’s next act of “peace” was to supervise the invasion of South Vietnam in 1975 and the invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

Given this record, I think you can see why the Nobel Committee has shown an increased penchant for giving the award to groups rather than individuals. A specific individual may embarrass them, but a group or institution—like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—allows them to give the award, not to a concrete person with concrete goals, but to an abstract idea. In this case, they’re giving it to the aspiration of prohibiting chemical weapons.

And who is it, exactly, who holds this aspiration? Why, primarily it is the Nobel Committee itself. All awards are about the givers as much as they are about the recipients—usually more so. It’s not just about drawing attention to the great work somebody else is doing. It’s about drawing attention to how great you are for recognizing it. This year, the Nobel Committee has taken this idea to its full logical conclusion. In effect, they have managed to award the Nobel Peace Prize to their own posturing aspirations for peace.

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