Further Reflections on the Nobel Effect

by Roger Alford

I appreciate the remarks of Ken, Greg, and Anne. Just a few quick thoughts by way of response. First, I like the way Greg and Anne describe the teleology of the Nobel Peace Prize. I think that is an accurate way to put it. There are undeniable themes that wax and wane in the history of the prize, and they are fairly consistent with the evolution of international law. Each period builds on the other, and slowly the edifice of international law took shape. Indeed, one of the reasons the Nobel Peace Prize has been accused of mission creep is because so much of the original agenda of the prize has been achieved.

Regarding the comment that the Pacifist Period and the Statesman Period are hard to distinguish from one another, I agree that the themes are largely similar during the two periods, but I do not agree that the periods are indistinguishable. The norms prohibiting offensive war and establishing a permanent international judiciary emerged during the Pacifist Period but cascaded during the Statesman period. Meanwhile the dream of the complete abolition of war died a painful death. And the Pacifist Period’s vision of interstate arbitration as the alternative to war was overtaken by the emergence of a permanent international judiciary during the Statesman Period. In addition, some norms, such as international human rights, only began to emerge with any force during the Statesman Period. In short, the life cycle of international norms transcends the specific periods, but history does reveal an undeniable shift in emphasis among Nobel Laureates in different periods.

Regarding the wisdom of using the label “entrepreneur” for a “norm emerger” like Bertha von Suttner, or a “norm cascader” like Frank Kellogg, or a “norm internalizer” like Desmond Tutu, I rather like the call for descriptive clarity you suggest. Different Laureates undoubtedly serve different purposes, and “entrepreneur” may be too generic a term to provide real explanatory value.

As for the question of who is the real entrepreneur, the Laureates or the Nobel Committee, it is a question that has not escaped my consideration. I think the answer is that both are entrepreneurs. I have no doubt that most Laureates are “norm entrepreneurs” with or without the prize. One can name dozens of individuals who have been effective entrepreneurs without the honor. But the power of the Nobel Committee to anoint someone with the honor of receiving the most prestigious prize in the world certainly empowers that person. As Desmond Tutu put it, as soon as he received the prize everything changed. He became an oracle of wisdom whose every word was received with awe, despite the fact that the words he spoke were the same before and after the prize. I have little doubt that the Nobel Committee is acutely aware of the impact its action have in promoting certain norms.

Turning to Ken’s comments regarding campaigns for the prize, I do not think that history has been unkind to the Nobel Committee in this regard. I have looked at the archives of nominations in Oslo and I have seen numerous “campaigns” that failed, including repeated nominations of individuals who deserved the prize, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt. In other cases, some Laureates have received the prize despite intensive campaigning for another candidate, such as the awards to the then-obscure Shirin Ebadi in 2003 and Wangari Maathi in 2004, despite the fact that everyone thought the aging Pope John Paul II was a shoe-in. And sometimes a “campaign” is necessary to highlight the life of a worthy candidate who has spent her life toiling in obscurity, as was the case with the BBC’s Malcolm Muggeridge’s efforts to honor Mother Theresa.

As for Ken’s comment that an ill-timed prize can adversely effect the recipient, I agree. But Laureates recognize the moral authority that is placed upon them when receiving this prize, and by and large they admirably attempt to live up to the challenge. Sure there is fallout within an campaign when one leader is honored and another of equal stature is not. But I’m not sure how frequently that occurs. The counterexample to your illustration is the award to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, with the Yunus the undeniable leader of the microfinance movement. I would also add that ill-timed awards have been among the most controversial, such as the 1994 award to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin in the hopes that it would spur peace in the Middle East. I disagree with the notion that individuals or organizations engage in good works with the hopes of achieving the prize. Almost no one “deserves” the Nobel Peace Prize, and even the rare individuals who do sometimes don’t receive it. Only the most self-congratulatory organization or individual could actually believe that their deeds would merit such an honor.


One Response

  1. [Cross posted as an update on my post below.]

    (Update, responding to Roger above:  Let me stress that I have zero knowledge about Nobel Prizes apart from what I describe from my own experience below.  I don’t mean to generalize about them, although it sounds that way in part below.  If there is any generalization that comes out of the experiences I mention below, it is about the nature of networked advocacy, where networks, because of their loose nature, can be destabilized by such things as Nobel Prizes.  

    The other thing I wanted to mention is that I don’t mean, although again I see that’s how it sounds below, that groups go out doing good works to try and win the prize.  But in the case of the landmines campaign, at least, once it was in the air that the Nobel prize might go to someone or something connected to landmines, at that point organizations and individuals emphatically saw themselves in competition with one another, precisely because each saw itself as no less worthy and understanding that it would only go to one (or two).  My observation is not that people go out to do good works in order to seek the prize – it is, rather, that once in the doing of good works and then faced with the possibility of the prize being awarded to someone or something within the general category, positioning can – and in the landmines case, did – occur because no one thought themselves any less worthy of the honor.  Moreover, although I do indeed think, from simple time spent in the company of each of the people I mention below, that personal ambition was a significant part of the positioning process once the possibility was on the table, it is also crucial to understanding just how significant it was from the standpoint of an activist or organization’s fundraising.  I recall a meeting of a couple of these groups, members of the ICBL although I don’t recall if Jody was there (probably not, as tensions were high, to say the least, because most of these other folks had a strong feeling, justified or not, fair or not, that she had done a lot to put herself, and not just the ICBL, forward for the prize) with Soros not long after the prize was awarded; ever the practical, hardheaded philanthropist, he asked, “What are your plans to monetize the prize?” Because, from his point of view, he wanted to stop being the leading foundation funder and instead see the prize translate into contributions from a much wider audience.  And he was right, and this was also something that the prize givers also had in mind.  But this then led to a nasty fight over demands and expectations that Jody would as a matter of course turn her part of the prize money over the ICBL; as she said, however, and quite rightly, “No one in the ICBL seems to understand that Nobel Prizes are great, but they also make you pretty much unemployable.”  I don’t want to generalize about Nobel Prizes, as I know nothing about them overall, except my experience watching this one.  But once the possibility of a prize was in play, and known to be in play, at least in the landmines situation, the lobbying and positioning were intense.  And highly distracting.  I’m not being cynical here, just realistic about very human motivations.  Perhaps the takeaway is that networks have their own limitations.) 

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