The power and the politics of the Nobel

What can the Nobel prize really do for a laureate?


Deepshikha Kumari | December 17, 2010

I attended a talk at Oxford by Geir Lundestad, Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo and Secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee since 1990 and he spoke on Power and Norms: What can the Nobel Peace Prize accomplish? Being an Indian student at Oxford I had one obvious question in my mind “why did Mahatma Gandhi never receive the Nobel Peace prize?” Somebody symbolic of peace and non- violence in modern history and admired by people all across the world including heads of state such as the 2009 Nobel peace laureate US president, Barack Obama himself. This has indeed been a question on many minds and while the Committee has confirmed in the past that Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before his death in January 1948, it has also publicly regretted this omission. Mr Lundestad too acknowledged the same at the very start.

However, being an international politics student what strikes me even more is this question: Why does it even matter that Gandhi did not receive the Nobel peace Prize? Since it obviously did not, in any way, deter or obstruct the Mahatma from leading our nation onto the path of independence. Would it have made any difference if Gandhiji had received the award and attended the ceremony? Given the colonial context and the struggle for independence, was it a deliberate decision to not award the man with the stick who stirred a nation and shook the very foundation of its colonial rulers.

Lundestad began his talk trying to address the question - “What can the peace prize do for peace in the world?”. Interestingly his answer was “nothing”. He further stated, “Five Norwegians cannot transform world politics” and it amazes him why should the world care who “Five Norwegians decide to give the award to”. Lundestad is correct to an extent given the new emerging global order where the US and Europe are no longer centres of global power whether economic or political. However, what is also significant to note is that if five Norwegians cannot influence world politics, then why is china embroiled in the current controversy surrounding the 2010 award and why are nations either extending support to the Nobel peace prize or to China’s protest against it. While representatives from UK, US, France, India and around 48 other countries attended the ceremony; eighteen other countries including Russia, Cuba, Iraq, Pakistan and Iran decided to boycott the event.

This year Liu Xiaobo a professor of literature and a dissident in China was awarded the Nobel peace prize. He is serving an 11-year sentence in prison for what the Chinese government called “inciting subversion of state power.” While China has called the award in Oslo a "political farce” and lashed out at Norway and the West in general as "clowns" conspiring in a western plot against China, in another part of the world in Norway an empty chair stood in for imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo as he was awarded the Peace Prize in absentia on Friday amid protests and condemnation from China.

Getting back to the talk by Mr Lundestad, it was not very surprising to find the seminar room filled with Asian students specially Indian and Chinese, and one other popular question asked was related to last years Peace Prize laureate US president Barack Obama.

My intention is to draw attention to what is it that the peace prize would have done for Liu Xiabo had he attended the ceremony on December 10. What is it that threatened the Chinese government and would have probably led to a further subversion of state power? Freedom of speech and expression undoubtedly are significant concepts and in the arena of world politics they do cause complications leading to what might be called “subversion of state power” and while Julia Assange is being held for such complications what can be called “subversion of international diplomacy”, China as a nation is vehemently condemned for putting behind bars a literature professor who in their eyes is a criminal. While this is a separate debate about who will guard the guardians, in this discussion I seek to move beyond “why and who” was awarded but really “what” is it that the Nobel peace prize does for the awardees belonging to particular nation-states who receive this “noble” award that at times worries even major powers in world politics.

The answer is legitimacy, a significant concept now emerging more so with the constructivist chain of thought in international relations where legitimacy itself is a source of power. As Max Weber famously said, power with legitimacy equals authority and the Nobel peace prize may be seen as symbolic of that kind of authority, what in constructivist terms is called “moral authority.” The Nobel peace prize thus becomes a sort of a moral entrepreneur and authority that in many ways then decides for example, not only who is in violation of human rights but also what human rights are!

The Nobel peace prize is an important platform that gives voice to people and legitimacy to their voice and endows actors with a moral authority. A platform that may be used and I argue has been used to justify and validate and in turn provide legitimacy to actors as well as their actions. For example US President Barack Obama’s Nobel peace prize in 2009 received mixed opinions with some questioning the very legitimacy of his nomination. I do not seek to discuss the controversy around the award, but rather look at the process of legitimation in his acceptance speech as a ‘speech act’ where he predominantly defended the US engagement in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. This is probably the first ever acceptance speech for a peace prize where the word ‘war’ was used many a more times than ‘peace’ itself. This example highlights the power of reason-giving, speech, and arguments to justify actions and behavior given the presence of an ‘audience, institutions and language’ makes the process of legitimation more effective.  Obama was speaking to an audience present at the award ceremony and the general worldwide public through media in the institutionalised setting of the Nobel peace prize and his arguments and reasons were based on appeals to a widely shared language and beliefs about notions of security, peace, and democracy global humanitarian values of civil and political rights, economic security and opportunity, just war, and self-defense to justify the use of force. Given that it was not too long before receiving this award that US decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while gradually withdrawing from Iraq, he sought to defend America’s role as peace-keepers and appealing to norms of justice and a ‘just war’, he spoke of redefining what it might mean to achieve ‘just peace.’ Importantly he stated, ‘I - like any head of state - reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates - and weakens - those who don't. For when we don't, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention - no matter how justified.

In conclusion, I disagree with Lundestad on one thing, for it’s not as if the Nobel Peace Prize does “nothing” for there’s surely “something” that this prize does for its awardees and consequently for world politics as well and something that the committee should be aware of and acknowledge. In this context the Nobel peace prize is not a powerless tool and nor is it devoid of politics. While it may not transform world politics, it surely influences it. The Nobel Peace Prize works as a worldwide platform that provides a mike to its awardees making their voice ring beyond borders thus enhancing their very legitimacy in the process. It becomes a powerful tool in their hands and finally this is also why, the world cares as to whom five Norwegians decide to award this prize to every year.



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