The Nobel Effect: Nobel Peace Prize Laureates as International Norm Entrepreneurs

by Roger Alford

Everyone knows about the Nobel Peace Prize, but virtually no one studies it. We all assume that Nobel Laureates are influential, but seldom do we try to gauge that influence. My article does both, arguing that Nobel Peace Prize Laureates have been influential norm entrepreneurs who have dramatically shaped the face of modern international law.

The foundation for the article is a theory of international relations known as constructivism. Constructivism is a theory that posits the rather obvious point that state interests are not fixed but ever changing. It further posits that norm entrepreneurs play a significant role in the emergence, cascading, and internalization of international norms. There have been numerous articles that have provided support for this proposition, but to my knowledge no scholar has attempted to systematically analyze the history of modern international law from the perspective of constructivism. This article is the first step toward such an analysis.

In order to test the hypothesis, the article does two things. First, it tags every single Nobel Lecture ever delivered by a Nobel Peace Laureate and identifies every major topic addressed in every Nobel Lecture. This was no mean feat. The article then identifies patterns of the most frequently referenced topics in different periods in the life of the Nobel Peace Prize. The results were fascinating. In the early period up to the First World War, topics such as international arbitration, the development and codification of international law, and the establishment of a permanent international judicial were the most frequently identified topics. Those issues disappeared completely in subsequent decades, while new issues began to appear in successive waves, including topics such as colonialism, human rights, poverty, democracy, and the environment.

The frequency with which different topics were addressed in the Nobel Lectures provides a useful empirical basis for the proposition that norms emerge, cascade, and become internalized within the international legal system. The patterns that emerged were clustered together and given appropriate labels: the Pacifist Period (1901-1913), the Statesmen Period (1917-1938), the Humanitarian Period (1944-1959), the Human Rights Period (1960-1986), and the Democracy Period (1987-Present). What emerges from this analysis is a vivid picture of norm evolution since the dawn of the modern age of international law.

Second, the article systematically analyzes every single Nobel Peace Prize Laureate with an eye toward their contribution to the development of international law. It was one of the most enjoyable and difficult experiences of my professional life. What emerges is a clear and unequivocal picture: the story of international law is the story of hundreds of individuals and organizations who have slowly, patiently, and successfully built this edifice of the law of nations that appears so familiar to us today.

To give you just a flavor of the evolution of norms in each period, the first period, denominated the Pacifist Period, focused on themes such promoting international arbitration, a permanent international judiciary, the abolition of war, the development and codification of international law, and the creation of an international organization to secure and maintain peace.

During the interwar period, norm cascades occurred favoring the establishment of international institutions, such as the League of Nations, and international norms, such as the unlawfulness of offensive war.

Immediately following the Second World War, international humanitarian law crystallized as Laureates during this period promoted important emerging norms regarding the treatment of those vanquished in war, as well as fostering postwar recovery through regional integration and treaties regulating the conduct of war.

Just as international humanitarian law crystallized in the previous period, international human rights law came into its own during the Human Rights Period. International law became increasingly defined by its pursuit of norms protecting the individual from the state.

Finally, the defining feature of the current “Democracy Period” is the recognition of democracy as an indispensable tool to secure international peace and security. The most significant Laureates in this period were transformational statesmen, pro-democracy dissidents, and democracy advocates who promoted this norm in regions where it has struggled to take root.

This project is ambitious. To my knowledge it is the first to present a complete history of modern international law through a constructivist lens. It is also the first to highlight the importance of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates on the development of international law. But, of course, with a project of such ambition I am acutely aware of its shortcomings. The project deserves a more thorough analysis than what is provided in this first article. Each period merits a more fulsome treatment, rather than simply an outline of how international law has developed across the decades.

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