Betraying the Nobel: The Secrets and Corruption Behind the Nobel Peace Prize
If the Nobel Peace Prize really followed Alfred Nobel’s wishes, the next winners should be Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. In reality, this is comically impossible. The mock-outrage elicited by Alan Dershowitz’s nomination of Kushner and his aide Avi Berkowitz shows how far the Nobel has drifted into a partisan theater in which every entrance and exit comes from stage-left.
A few weeks ago, the London Spectator published my review of Betraying the Nobel, Unni Turrettini’s exposé of the Nobel’s institutional rot. A member of the Nobel Committee took a break from patronizing the world and sent an outraged complaint to the editor. He accused me of misinformation, disinformation and unspecified yet unforgivable malice towards his high-status, free-lunch side-gig. In other words, he accused me of telling truths that he didn’t like, and expected them to be altered accordingly.
He was, of course, wrong — as wrong as the ex-minister from a minor European state who, when I mentioned factual errors in a generally positive review of his latest masterpiece for the Wall Street Journal, wrote to the editors and demanded a retraction.
This is how unaccountable snobs and bullies react when you state the factually obvious. In this case, the factually obvious is that the Nobel Prize has betrayed its founding principles and succumbed to an elite form of moral yoga: endlessly patting itself on the back. I strongly recommend that you read Betraying the Nobel. I really don’t care if that makes the Nobel Committee choke on their morning crisp bread, and neither should you.
Betraying the Nobel opens with a detonation from Michael Nobel, Alfred’s great-grandnephew. The vice-chairman and then chairman of the Nobel Family Society for 15 years, Michael believes that the Nobel Peace Institute has betrayed the ‘original conditions of Alfred Nobel’s will and intentions’. Its selection process is ‘very sketchy’: its committee of Norwegian parliamentarians reflects the balance of power in their parliament. Its awards reflect ‘personal interests’, ‘political and national considerations’, and ‘human rights or global warming’, all of which have ‘little or nothing’ to do with Alfred Nobel’s bequest.
The Prize was a dynamite idea when it was founded in 1900. What better way to avoid war than to recycle the profits from explosives into an incentive scheme for perpetual peace? But, as Unni Turrettini describes in her efficient and quietly devastating account, the Peace Prize soon fell to secret horse-trading, moral grandstanding and what one Norwegian parliamentarian calls ‘the privatization of foreign policy’.
Alfred Nobel, the Swedish engineer who had stabilized nitroglycerine in 1863, began selling it to miners as ‘Safety Powder’ in 1867. Safety Powder created the St Gotthard Tunnel through the Alps. It also killed Czar Alexander II when assassins lobbed a dynamite-filled bomb at his carriage. Nobel died at San Remo in 1896, aged 63. Childless and unhappy — his mother had blocked a love match with Bertha Kinsky, an idealistic Russian countess — the ‘Dynamite King’ bequeathed annual prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature, to be administrated by apolitical Swedish institutions; the Karolinska Institute, a medical university, awards the medicine prize. A fifth, in memory of Bertha’s values, was to be granted by the Norwegian parliament.
Bertha received the Peace Prize in 1905, but the committee didn’t do badly in its early decades. It managed to vote down nominees like Mussolini (1935), Hitler (1939, allegedly as a joke) and Stalin (seriously in 1945 and 1948). It missed Gandhi, probably to avoid antagonizing the British, but it bravely recognized Carl von Ossietzky (1935), a German pacifist imprisoned by the Nazis; two members of the committee resigned, and the rest seem to have assumed a posture of supine accommodation towards the Nazis.
The Ossietzky controversy accelerated the Peace Prize’s conversion into a weapon of Norwegian foreign policy. Postwar Norway allied with the US, but the nominations also reflected Norway’s ‘love affair with the United Nations’ and its aspirations towards becoming what Henrik Thune, the current director of a Norwegian foreign policy institute, calls ‘a secret superpower within peace and reconciliation’. Hence Cordell Hull (1945), FDR’s secretary of state and the ‘father of the UN’. Hence too career soldier George C. Marshall (1953) and the necessary Cold War equivalency of Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (1973) and Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (1978).
The appointment of Geir Lundestad as secretary of the Nobel Peace Institute in 1990 was a watershed. Lundestad converted the award ceremony into a ‘grandiose show, resembling the Grammy Awards’.  He increased the Institute’s profile, but this increased its financial dependency on the Norwegian government. With the Soviet threat gone and Norway’s social-democratic consensus ossified, a barely-repressed tendency to moral pomp now ran wild.
The Prize slowly changed into a spark i leggen (a ‘kick in the leg’) against the Americans. After 9/11, it went to the UN and Kofi Annan (2001) and Jimmy Carter (2002), for not being George W. Bush; Mohamed El Baradei of the IAEA (2005), who ‘took sides in conflicts and hid information from the public in order to protect certain member states’; the climate alarmist Al Gore (2007); and Barack Obama (2009) for winning an election while black.
The committee could not have known that Menachem Begin (1978) would invade Lebanon in 1982, or that Obama would step up his predecessor’s drone wars and destroy Libya. But only vanity could have masked the unsuitability of the Guatemalan ‘guerrilla fighter’ Rigoberta Menchú (1992), whose bestselling autobiography had already been discredited by a New York Times investigation; the professional terrorist and KGB client Yasser Arafat (1994); and Ellen Sirleaf (2011), a Liberian politician who had served in the government of dictator Samuel Doe and had been banned from participating in politics by the Truth and Reconciliation commission that she herself had established.
The Nobel has succumbed to the politicized inertia that has sapped the independence and judgement of similar philanthropic monsters like the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. The Peace Prize is now more likely to go to sainted abstractions like the European Union (2012) than to actual peacemakers. Turrettini provides a detailed account of how it all went wrong. The capsule biographies of the less worthy winners are especially droll.
Dominic Green, PhD, FRHistS is a critic, historian and the deputy editor of The Spectator’s World edition. The author of four books, he writes widely on the arts and current affairs, and contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal and the New Criterion. His next book, The Religious Revolution, is forthcoming with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.