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Potential Problems

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If Obama's Nobel peace prize does nothing else, it at least has briefly united Michael Steele and the Taliban. And, I have to confess, my initial reaction was the same as theirs, and pretty much everyone's outside the White House: What has Obama done to deserve this? But if you think about it for a second, desert is almost irrelevant here. Unlike the Nobel prizes for medicine or physics or literature, the Nobel peace prize is often awarded for potential rather than past achievement; it's like the NBA draft of the Nobels.

In a July article in Foreign Policy, Ronald Krebs wrote about these "aspirational" peace prizes awarded by the Nobel committee:

The Nobel Peace Prize's aims are expressly political. The Nobel committee seeks to change the world through the prize's very conferral, and, unlike its fellow prizes, the peace prize goes well beyond recognizing past accomplishments. As Francis Sejersted, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the 1990s, once proudly admitted, "The prize ... is not only for past achievement. ... The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account [because] ... Nobel wanted the prize to have political effects. Awarding a peace prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act."

Indeed, since 1971, according to Krebs's criteria, the Nobel committee has awarded 27 aspirational prizes. Alas, the problem for Obama, as Kregs goes on to argue, is that these recipients have rarely fulfilled the committee's aspirations:

When the Nobel Peace Prize rewards past accomplishments, it is to be welcomed -- not because it changes the world, but because it celebrates and reaffirms liberal ideals. But in the increasingly frequent cases in which it is bestowed for actors' aspirations and in which it seeks to promote democratic political change, winners beware.

Sounds like the peace prize has resulted in more Kwame Browns than LeBron Jameses.

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