Jacob Heilbrunn

Does the Nobel Peace Prize Promote Peace?

Last year President Obama won the Noble Peace Prize. This year the winner is Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Obama remarked, "Liu Xiaobo is far more deserving of this award than I was."

It would be difficult to disagree. Obama was given the award on the basis of his aspirations, most notably ridding the world of nuclear weapons, a goal that seems further away than ever, as Iran and North Korea plow ahead with their atomic programs. Xiaobo has called for human rights and a multiparty democracy. His reward: imprisonment for at least 11 years, while his wife, Liu Xia, is under house arrest. While Obama and other world leaders press the case for Xiaobo, China is going bonkers. The Wall Street Journal observes that his prize has become a "titanic headache for China's leaders--a global embarrassment not seen in the country's recent history."

The wound is self-inflicted. It testifies to China's own insecurities about where it's headed. Take a look at the protests over tuition hikes in England, where protesters apparently cried "off with their heads," as they surrounded the car of Prince Charles and his beloved Camilla. That happened in a democracy. Imagine the tensions roiling China, where a central authority is trying to manage an authoritarian version of market capitalism (a contradiction in terms?), bringing 1 billion people into modernity.

Was it wise, then, to award Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize? Does the prize actually promote peace--or does it simply make the West feel virtuous? Does the prize, in fact, prompt authoritarian regimes to stiffen their resistance to any intrusions from the West?

That's what seems to be happening in China, where the regime is huffing and puffing about Liu being a "vassal of the West." The award, it says, is "an obscenity." And so forth. There's something kind of pathetic about Beijing's reaction. It's clearly been caught off-guard and is retreating into old Maoist slogans. A general crackdown is taking place, as CBS notes:

While Liu has faced the brunt of Beijing's condemnation, scores of other dissidents and independent social activists have also come under pressure.Numerous lawyers, academics and non-governmental organization activists were prevented from attending a seminar on rule of law hosted by the European Union on Thursday due to being under house arrest or having been physically stopped by police officers, said EU ambassador Serge Abou.

At the same time, the prize itself has inescapably become part of the jockeying that takes place among the great powers. The Obama administration has put its muscle behind standing behind Xiaobo. Russia, along with 18 other countries, refuses to attend the ceremony. Xiaobo will be represented by an empty chair, which may speak more loudly than anything he could say.

China has succeeded in making Xiaobo famous. It is fanning curiosity about him inside China as well. But in demonizing Xiaobo and depicting him as a stooge of the western powers, it can draw on a deep history of resentment at China's oppression and exploitation by imperialist powers, including Great Britain and the United States, that should not be underestimated. Nationalism is on the rise in China. Will the Peace Prize promote the universal values that the Nobel committee endorses--or will it simply push China to turn inward?