Peace Prize Follies
Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, John Boyd Orr confessed “grave doubts” about his worthiness to receive “the greatest honor any man can get.” Accepting the same award ten years later, Philip Noel-Baker said, “What more could any man or woman ask of Fate?” (Both of these laureates were British UN figures.) Writing about the prize in his memoirs, Henry Kissinger, one of the 1973 laureates, said, “There is no other comparable honor.” You might expect winners to talk this way: They have won, after all. But there is also the authority of Oxford’s Dictionary of Contemporary World History, which describes the Nobel peace award as “the world’s most prestigious prize.”
Is it also the most famous? Yes, unless that distinction belongs to the Oscar. In a single year, 2007, one man, Al Gore, won both awards. That will almost certainly never happen again. In addition to being the most prestigious or famous, the Nobel Peace Prize could well be the most problematic award. What is peace, anyway, and what kind of behavior advances its prospects? Who deserves to be crowned a “champion of peace”, and the world’s foremost? Desmond Tutu, the 1984 laureate, has said, “No sooner had I got the Nobel Peace Prize than I became an instant oracle. Virtually everything I had said before was now received with something like awe.” That tends to happen, true, for better or worse.
Over the generations, the Nobel Peace Prize has influenced how people think about peace. That is, the relevant committee not only makes judgments; it affects the very basis of judgment on this extremely important subject.
For this and other reasons, a study of the Nobel Peace Prize is a useful exercise. Two of the other reasons are these: Such a study gives you a neat, sweeping survey of the 20th century, for the prizes begin in 1901. And it introduces you to a vast and diverse cast of characters. Remember, this is a prize won by both Mother Teresa and Yasir Arafat.