The Nobel Peace Prize’s official website includes a list of the most popular Peace laureates of all time. It does not mention how popularity is measured. And indeed many of the entries in the top ten do not beg that question. Martin Luther King Jr. leads the list. He was awarded the Prize in 1964 for his legendary struggle against racism and for equality and human rights. Jane Addams is number two. Less well known than Mr King she founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919, and worked for many years to get the great powers to disarm and conclude peace agreements. She was awarded the Prize in 1931. Number three on the list is Mother Teresa (1979) and Nelson Mandela (1993 joint with F.W. de Klerk), both indisputable figures of peace during my childhood, adolescence and beyond.
More surprising to me is the mention of U.S. President Barack Obama in fifth place. Many were surprised by the selection of Obama – who as he himself acknowledged in his acceptance speech of the prize was very much at the beginning of his career not at the end of it. What is more, since 2009 when he was awarded the prize Mr Obama has disappointed many. United States security services mass surveillance techniques signify institutionalized disregard for human rights seemingly with Mr Obama’s permission; the Guantánamo Bay Prison camp remains opens despite repeated promises to shut the facility; and Mr Obama – almost alone – favoured a military intervention into Syria in light of the recent chemical weapons attacks. The latter is not necessarily antithetical to peace, but given that the Nobel Committee’s choice of Mr Obama was motivated by “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”, one may wonder why a diplomatic solution was not his first choice.
In my view the award for Mr Obama must be understood in a different light. I believe that he got the prize not so much for what he did but for what the award will prevent him from doing. Let me put this differently. The award and acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize ties Mr Obama to a certain course of conduct in world politics. Now, I don’t want to overstate the soft power of the Peace Prize and its awarding committee, but it is telling that in late summer 2013 Mr Obama was at pains to reconcile being a Nobel Laureate with his plans to militarily intervene into Syria. Although being a Laureate is unlikely to stop Obama from intervening, Mr Obama’s speech nonetheless suggests that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is not just a silent observer of events but a political body with an agenda of its own.