The granting of the Nobel Peace Prize has always been a calculated political act. This might come as a surprise to some. After all, our stereotypes of Scandinavians would demand that the Norwegian Nobel Committee go about its task with a detached Nordic fastidiousness. But the Nobel Peace Prize has been employed as a political intervention just as often as it has been simply an acknowledgment of a job well done.
The latest example of this tendency on the part of the Nobel Committee was in granting Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, the Nobel Peace Prize for his yet unfinished work in ending the 50-year conflict with the guerrilla group, Las FARC.
The Santos government and Las FARC spent four full years negotiating in Havana, Cuba before a peace deal was presented to the public for referendum. You would think that everybody would support a deal to end a 50-year war right? But no, some parts of the deal were too controversial for certain elements of Colombian society. For example, the deal allowed Las FARC to become a disarmed political party and promised lighter punishments for crimes committed if the Las FARC leadership submitted themselves voluntarily to the authorities.
Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s conservative former president and Santos’s bitter rival, led the “No” campaign. Voters rejected the deal by .2 percent. Tragically, when the voter distribution is considered, the areas most impacted by the war with Las FARC overwhelmingly voted for the deal while the areas most immune to the ravages of the conflict voted to continue on. The peace process continues, but now Álvaro Uribe wants a seat at the deal and Santos must struggle to salvage as much of the deal as possible. Just like with Brexit, naked self-interest trumped service to one’s country.
In this light, Santo’s Nobel Peace Prize is not so much a reward as it is a premeditated political intervention by the Nobel Committee. Throughout the negotiations, Santos was accused by his opponents of speeding the process so he could win the Nobel Prize. Now that he has one, his good faith in continuing the peace process is unimpeachable. Furthermore, the prize signifies the support of the international community for Santos and in doing so belittles Uribe domestically. Colombians respect the Nobel Prize. Every school child from Cali to Santa Marta is taught how great Gabriel García Márquez was for bringing the Nobel Prize in literature to Colombia.
Such maneuverings are nothing new in the history of the Nobel Prize. Time and time again the Nobel Prize has acted to throw the weight of “Western” liberal democratic opinion behind a certain beleaguered figure. For example, before Nelson Mandela and Frederik Wilhelm de Klerk were granted the Nobel Peace Prize for (relatively) peacefully terminating the Apartheid system. Albert Lututi and Desmond Tutu were given Nobel Prizes for their efforts to end apartheid. The prize called attention to their plight and gave them international support as well as the protection that came with visibility.
Be that as it may, the Nobel Peace Prize’s lofty status as the peak achievement of world figures has historically not gone unchallenged. Noticing the deep ideological predilections of the Nobel Committee, Joseph Stalin decided to create an alternative prize for an alternative Communist world order. He called it, unsurprisingly, the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples. If you’re trying to outdo a prize created by an arms manufacturer, might as well go with a mass murderer. Thankfully, after Stalin’s death, the prize’s name was changed to the more palatable International Lenin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples. The Nobel Peace Prize had been sucked into the stark ideological divisions of the Cold War.
This is not to say that the Lenin Peace Prize was without its merits. The list of people who won Lenin Peace Prizes is far more racially and geographically diverse than those that won the Nobel during the cold war. The Lenin prize was granted to W.E.B. DuBois, Salvador Allende and a whole slew of African and Asian anti-colonial revolutionaries. However, it was also granted to an expansive list of dictators including Fidel Castro, Sukarno, Janos Kadar and Leonid Brezhnev. But the Lenin Prize was fated to come to an end with the fall of the USSR, and the Nobel Prize has since the reigned unchallenged as the ultimate mark of global achievement, annually confirming and perpetuating the dominant discourses of human rights and liberal democratization.
A question to be asked is this: As the developing world continues to grow economically and military, will Euro-American ideological supremacy be challenged with other alternative awards? The latest effort in this vein is the recent creation of the Hugo Chavez Peace Prize in Venezuela, a country where people spend over 30 hours a week in line for scarce basic goods.
President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro, last seen handing over control of the food supply to the military, granted the prize to Vladimir Putin. Given the current state of Venezuela, and the current state of Russia, it is safe to assume that no one will take the Hugo Chavez Prize particularly seriously. Nevertheless, it serves as a handy illustration of the subjective political nature of prizes in general.
At the very least, whether credible new prizes emerge or not, perhaps remembering the Lenin Peace Prize and the Hugo Chavez Peace Prize can shake us from unconditionally worshiping Nobel Peace Prize winners. Nelson Mandela was an incompetent president, Aung San Su Kyi has done nothing to halt the immense suffering inflicted on the Rohingya people of Myanmar and Barack Obama presided over a massive expansion in drone strikes and extra judicial killings abroad.
Therefore what the world must do now is not simply congratulate Santos, but remember to keep him accountable.