Already this century the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to two American presidents and a vice president, and only one of them was worthy of it. The other two were Barack Obama and Al Gore.
Jimmy Carter won the prize in 2002 “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development." The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s citation for Carter holds up—which one cannot say about their words for Gore, who won for starring in a documentary and later sold his TV network for petrodollars, or Obama, who won for not being George W. Bush and has hardly been a peacenik in office. But even Carter’s honor was an implicit rebuke of American foreign policy: Our adventure in Afghanistan had begun and, only a month prior to the committee’s announcement, Bush had laid the groundwork for the Iraq invasion with a speech at the United Nations General Assembly.
Which is to say: The Nobel committee is desperate to seem relevant and overestimates its influence, as it showed by giving the 2013 prize this week to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which only weeks ago began sending chemical-weapons inspectors to Syria, rather than Malala Yousafzai. Again the committee has awarded the prize—as it has so many times before, including last year (European Union)—not for actual accomplishments but rather a sort of parental encouragement (We believe in you! You can do it!) or like a baseball manager slapping a player on the ass (Go get ‘em, kid). But history has a way of crushing hope. This year’s prize is going to look hasty when the Syrian regime uses the chemical weapons it kept hidden from inspectors, and Obama or his successor feels he has little choice but to pepper the country with rockets. (Remember when the 1973 prize went to the man who oversaw the secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos? Among other examples.)
Why do we grant such importance to an award decided by five current and former Norwegian politicians? The $1.2 million prize money probably has something to do with it, but I suspect it’s also because many of us share—or wish we shared—the committee’s hope and idealism. And yet, can you remember who won in 2010? 2004? 2003? And if I named the recipients, would you know who they were and why they won? Perhaps this is why the committee doesn’t always give its precious prize to deserving individuals, knowing that doing so might cause us to tune out the prize entirely. By regularly surprising us with famous faces (or bodies), however unusual or undeserving they may be, the committee keeps us guessing—and thus, keeps our attention.
That would be much too cynical a strategy, of course, for a group with such a high-minded mission. And it’s not like the prize, whoever wins it, draws that much attention anyway; we spend exactly one day a year talking about it. But if these Norwegians want the Peace Prize to have real import beyond the cash payout, and not be made to look foolish by history, then it should stop awarding it annually. Instead, give it out only when it’s truly merited, and without warning. Say someone convinced Israel and Palestine to agree on a two-state solution—yes, by all means, give that person a gold medal the size of a kitchen table. But not right away. Wait a few years, to make sure the deal actually sticks and that the would-be recipient isn’t revealed as, say, a war criminal. I can only imagine the interest Henry Kissinger is still collecting on his prize.