13 Oct International Mediator Wins Nobel Peace Prize
This weekend the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Martti Ahtisaari for his role as an international mediator assisting in the resolution of international conflicts. The press release emphasized that throughout Ahtisaari’s life he has worked for peace and reconciliation, with particular emphasis on his work in Namibia, Indonesia, Kosovo, and Iraq. Compared to last year’s prize to Al Gore and IPCC, this year’s prize represents an extremely safe, uncontroversial, and some would say uninspired choice. But it also is one of those choices that honors an individual who works in the trenches to resolve conflicts, rather than inspires the international community with lofty words, breathtaking visions, or sacrificial deeds.
The award to Ahtisaari is one of several peace laureates who have been honored for their role in mediating international conflicts. The first such recipient was Theodore Roosevelt, who received the prize in 1906 for his role in mediating peace between Russia and Japan. Other notable international mediators who have received the prize were Ralph Bunche (1950) for mediating an Israeli-Arab armistice, Oscar Arias Sánchez (1987) for negotiating peace in Central America, John Hume and David Trimble (1998) for their role in forging the Good Friday Accords, and Jimmy Carter (2002) for, among other things, mediating the Camp David Accords. If there is one key difference that distinguishes Ahtisaari from these other recipients it would be his lifelong role in mediating numerous conflicts rather any notable successes in particularly high-profile conflicts. Carter appears to be the closest parallel to Ahtisaari, but even that comparison is not perfect given Carter’s many other achievements beyond mediating international conflicts.
It is noteworthy just how rare international mediators are honored with the prize. In fact, it is just as common for the protagonists to international and domestic conflicts to receive the prize as the mediators who helped broker the peace. While international mediators have been honored a half-dozen times, the principal actors in international conflicts have been honored just as often, with the following laureates the most notable examples: Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann (1926) for negotiating the Locarno Accords, Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (1973) for negotiating the end the Vietnam War, Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin (1978) for the Camp David Accords, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk (1993) for the peaceful end to apartheid, and Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzak Rabin (1994) for their efforts to secure peace in the Middle East. Those awards have been among the most controversial in the history of the prize. The pragmatic message in all these awards is the same: perfection in international politics is impossible and the Nobel Peace Prize can and should honor fallible politicians who make realistic and incremental steps toward the desired end of peace. So often ridiculed for its utopian idealism, the Nobel Committee has occasionally opted for hard-nosed realism—and been criticized either way.
Perhaps the best one can say about the choice of Ahtisaari is that it is the kind of choice that is faithful to the original vision of Alfred Nobel. Unlike the award to Gore, which left many scratching their heads, honoring one who has spent his life brokering peace is exactly the kind of laureate one would expect for the most important peace prize in the world.