Bernard Lown, MD
The Nobel Peace Prize, the most highly regarded of global recognitions, is frequently controversial. The surprise designation of President Barack Obama as a Nobel recipient was greeted in the American media with ambivalence and even disdain. Some commentators suggested that being in office a mere nine months did not allow for an imprint on global policy or an amassing of humanitarian deeds deserving the Peace Prize. Disparaging words cascaded from the punditocracy about Obama’s pretty phrases and empty promises. The New York Times opined, “Normally the prize is presented, even controversially, for accomplishments,” and the Chicago Tribune headlined, “Europeans honor U.S. president for not being Bush.”
The left was even more strident. The distinguished historian Howard Zinn wrote, “I was dismayed when I heard Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize. A shock, really, to think that a president carrying on wars in two countries and launching military action in a third country (Pakistan), would be given a peace prize.”(1) The brilliant progressive commentator Naomi Klein cited chapter and verse describing how Obama’s government had sustained and even strengthened many Bush policies that weakened international governance.(2)
These questionings and disputes brought back memories. Twenty-four years earlier the Soviet cardiologist Eugene Chazov and I were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which we had co-founded four years earlier.(3) Our award evoked a storm of virulent protests. For selecting us the Norwegian committee was accused of pro-Soviet partisanship in the Cold War. That was far-fetched. Norway was the most orthodox member of NATO, and its foreign policy hewed to every breeze out of Washington.
The rhetoric against us was far more vitriolic than it has been against Obama. While IPPNW was punched with a mailed fist, Obama was gently brushed with a velvet glove. Writing about the 1985 award, Forbes magazine editorialized, “The Norwegian Nobel Committee blew it.” The New York Daily News headlined, “Soviet Propaganda Wins the Prize.” The Detroit News insisted that the Nobel Committee “rendered a significant disservice to the cause of peace.” NATO countries urged the Nobel Committee to rescind the prize. The U.S. Senate resolved that the U.S. ambassador to Norway remonstrate with the committee on its poor choice.
The clobbering we were subjected to in the Western media led us to several conclusions. First, that we had been effective in focusing on the criminality and imbecility of the nuclear arms race, thereby stomping on the establishment’s gouty toes. We had exposed the asymmetry of the Cold War, wherein the U.S. surged ahead with nuclear modernization while the Soviets were increasingly falling behind. This obvious fact was apparently not to be broached. We had demonstrated that the Soviets were searching for common ground and were ready to compromise. This ran counter to the unprecedented propaganda that NATO and Washington had mounted. The assault against IPPNW was intended to counteract the favorable public attention, the sense of righteousness and nobility of purpose, that the prize confers on its recipients.
I was puzzled why the Norwegians had stepped out of line. The century-long history of the Nobel Committee shows how intimate was the relationship between the committee and the Norwegian government. Jorgen Løvland, first chair of the committee, was at the same time prime minister (later, foreign minister). The tension between the Nobel mandate and politicians led the Storting, or Norwegian Parliament, in 1937 to exclude active politicians from membership. Despite those wholesome intentions, members of the Storting continued to be appointed until the Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973. Much of the worldwide outrage was undoubtedly provoked by the war in Vietnam, of which Kissinger was a leading architect. From that year onward, no members of the Storting had seats on the committee.
Denying government politicians membership on the Nobel Committee did not insulate the selection from politics. Norway is a small country with a population less than the state of Massachusetts. Thorbjorn Jagland, the head of the committee that selected Obama, was Norway’s prime minister a decade ago, and he is a leading member of the Labour Party, the senior party of the present governing coalition.
Probing why the IPPNW was chosen for the Nobel found me poking into a buzzing beehive. Selecting a nominee, as one Nobel Committee member related, is a profoundly political act, and sometimes the decisive voices are far from Norway. “Big brother” has a say. My informant was conveying that Washington was at times in the loop. I was dismayed to learn that IPPNW was not the intended recipient until shortly before the announcement in October. The laureate for 1985 was Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and writer. He was a favorite of the Reagan administration. Pressure from the White House had been unprecedented and forced the NC to cave in.
What caused the committee to change awardees almost at the finish line? Foremost, I believe, was a sense of dread about the intensifying Cold War. Both superpowers were acting as though war was imminent. Unless the arms race was reversed, a nuclear confrontation seemed inevitable. President Reagan’s reelection the preceding year was an ominous bellwether. He was scaring Europeans with a seemingly cowboy-like trivialization of the growing threat to human survival. Reagan’s menacing joke, “We are bombing the Soviet Union in five minutes,” uttered into a live radio microphone, sent a chill through the USSR and the rest of the world. The utter bleakness of the global political scene imparted a sense of urgency. Were a nuclear war to erupt, loyalty to NATO would not protect Norway from being scorched and irradiated. Anointing Wiesel with a Nobel would do nothing to counteract these cascading and threatening developments.
The announced Reagan-Gorbachev summit to take place in Geneva in late November 1985 was a tipping development accounting for the last-minute change in laureates. Since the selection of the Peace Prize was to be announced in early October, the committee had a six-week window to influence public opinion and affect the deliberations in Geneva. The Nobel recipient should be a peace activist concentrating on nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, the activities of any potential recipient should have addressed a major cause of the hostility between the superpowers, namely, an absence of dialogue and a paucity of trust. To halt the galloping nuclear arms race required confidence-building measures characterized by a willingness to compromise in order for cooperation to take precedence over confrontation. On all these scores IPPNW perfectly fit the bill.
But how to deal with Washington’s insistence that Wiesel be the chosen one? A compromise was reached, with the Reagan administration agreeing to postpone his Nobel selection until the following year. I was privy to a most carefully guarded secret, one that evokes intense global speculation and Las Vegas-like wagers. While the media engage in all types of hokey sleuthing to learn the prize-winner’s name a week or even a few days ahead, I knew the identity one year in advance. Perhaps never before had there been such a long hiatus between selecting and announcing the recipient.
During my several visits to Oslo I gained some insight into the permanent forces operating in the choice of a Peace Prize laureate. For this “insider,” the choice of Obama is impeccably logical. The Nobel proclamation weaves the arguments in favor of his being selected. Highlighted are two elements, namely, Obama’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy and his vision of a world free from nuclear arms.
It was widely recognized that President George W. Bush had created an unprecedented crisis for industrialized capitalist countries. His policies were wrecking not only NATO, but the dominant world order as well. The award declaration stated, “Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics.” More correctly it should have said that he restored the pre-Bush climate.
So what is this world climate? In essence it is the North-South divide. It is a continuing legacy of Christopher Columbus, a historical era when great wealth was plundered, when indigenous cultures were uprooted, when native populations were subjected to genocide. The human chattel and undreamed-of riches of the new world provided muscle and sinew for the Industrial Revolution. Euro-American affluence rests in no small measure on the poverty inflicted on the Third World.
In fact, we are still living in the Columbus era. The transfer of wealth from rich to poor is continuing at an accelerated pace. People in the Third World live as outsiders in their own home, excluded from social privilege and bereft of political control. The claims of luxury are pitted against the claims of subsistence. Simply stated, the divide results from a global division of labor wherein the South’s resources are bought cheap, while the North’s technology is sold dear. This world order is founded on inequality and injustice, where some can luxuriate in unimagined abundance while others cannot even eat enough, though they do not cease to toil.
The United States, with its 750 military bases girdling the world, its mammoth military expenditures, its robotic killing technologies, maintains this order. Under Bush the charade of promoting democracy, spreading the blessings of liberty, and sharing the abundance of the free market were being exposed as fiction thereby undermining mass support for the Atlantic pact. Obama restores the soothing gentility without much altering the commitment to maintaining the present world order. Illusion once again dominates reality. If Obama can sustain this crumbling order, surely he deserves some sort of award, but not one aiming to foster peace.
- Zinn H. Nobel Prize Promises. OpEd: Truthout; October 10, 2009.
- Klein N. Obama’s Bad Influence. The Nation November 2, 2009.
- Lown B. “Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness.” Berrett Koehler Publishers Inc. San Francisco .