A Nobel Prize for Irrelevance

October 11, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: NorwaySweden Blog Brand: The Buzz

A Nobel Prize for Irrelevance

The Nobel Committee is trying too hard to send political messages.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which today announced its decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, seems increasingly over its head. Following last year’s selection of the European Union, the Committee’s recognition of the OPCW appears likely to further dissipate the value of the Peace Prize and the attention it receives. Taking into account the very real importance of peace and its advocates to the day-to-day lives of millions around the world, one can only hope that the Committee will reevaluate its approach to the award next year.

First, to be clear, the OPCW is a valuable organization that is conducting very important work in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. The weapons are a grave danger to innocent civilians in Syria and elsewhere and the individuals responsible for safely eliminating them deserve gratitude and praise.

At the same time, however, the OPCW was not pivotal in the chain of events that made its work in Syria possible. The key events were Syria’s entry into the Chemical Weapons Convention and the U.S.-Russian agreement on managing the process in the United Nations Security Council. The people most responsible for those two things were Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, and their diplomats and advisors. Only after their choices and actions did the problem of Syria’s chemical weapons fall into the lap of the OPCW and its staff. In other words, the men and women of the OPCW are simply doing their jobs—albeit demanding and significant jobs.

One can imagine why the Nobel Committee would not want to present the Peace Prize to some or all of Assad, Putin and Obama. In Assad’s case, he is widely believed to have used the weapons and is conducting a brutal civil war. Few admire Putin’s peacemaking—though a Russian parliamentarian did nominate him for the prize—and for many Europeans, Russia’s domestic governance, its war in Georgia, and its heavy-handed attempts at energy diplomacy would likely rule him out. For his part, Obama already received the prize once recently, in advance of any particular accomplishments. Moreover, awarding a peace prize to leader for failing to follow through on threats of military action might lower the bar even further.

What is harder to understand is why in facing this dilemma the Nobel Committee did not choose to focus global attention on another issue instead. There are clearly many other real threats to peace beyond Syria—some of which affect many more people than a tragic civil war inside one country—and many courageous leaders and ordinary citizens working to address them. A variety of contenders have appeared in the press.

Ultimately, the Norwegian Nobel Committee may be trying too hard to send messages through its choices. Committee members probably wanted to make a statement about Syria, but couldn’t identify an individual—or even two or three—who captured the sentiment they wanted to deliver. So they presented the award to the OPCW, which offers maximum clarity of message, but none of the inspiration or excitement that has made the Nobel Peace Prize internationally meaningful in the past. One suspects that they likely followed the same logic chain in selecting the EU last year. But only by selecting specific people, not groups, can the Nobel Committee offer a truly compelling message with real impact.