Don’t Blame the Norwegians

After Santa Claus, Geir Lundestad has what may be the most joyful job in the world. Every year, on the second Friday of October at around 10:30 a.m., the suave, gray-haired Norwegian historian picks up his phone to inform a lucky earthling that he or she has just won the Nobel Peace Prize.

On Friday Mr. Lundestad made that call to The Hague, where the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has its headquarters. It is an appropriate choice. True, the organization has only just started its work in Syria, and overall has not done away with many chemical weapons in 2013, but it has achieved much to keep the world free of chemical warfare since its founding in 1997.

But despite the deserving nature of this year’s selection, a growing number of Nobel watchers say the prize is damaged. They fear recent honorees — Barack Obama in 2009, when he had been in office for only eight and a half months, and the European Union in 2012 — reflect a prestige-tarnishing politicization of the award.

Some propose reforming the selection process, primarily by replacing the committee, traditionally composed exclusively of Norwegian politicians, with a panel of international leaders. But does the prize really need reform?

Clearly it continues to impress. When I visited him in his office at the Alfred Nobel Institute in Oslo, Mr. Lundestad grabbed a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary World History. The entry line under “Nobel Peace Prize” begins simply: “The world’s most prestigious prize.”

And yet critics say that it has become politicized. “It seems like the committee wanted to award the prize to the American president to confirm the status of the prize rather than the worthiness of the candidate,” said Nils Butenschon, the director of the Norwegian Center for Human Rights.

Others ask why the European Union deserved the prize in 2012: it was, after all, the year that exposed the introduction of the euro as premature, bringing discord, not peace, to the Continent.

The critics believe the root of the problem lies in the exclusively Norwegian composition of the selection committee.

According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the committee comprises five members, elected by the Norwegian Parliament. Usually the jurors are former Norwegian politicians, but neither their citizenship nor profession is a requirement for inclusion. By limiting it to their former colleagues, the argument goes, the members of the Parliament make each seat a political chip, and each decision by the committee a reflection of internal Norwegian politics.

Take, for example, a story that has made its way around Oslo political circles. For years both Mr. Lundestad and Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister and the head of the committee, wanted to give the award to the European Union but were stymied by anti-Union opponents (Norway is not a member of the European Union, and euro-skepticism is more or less a mainstream position there).

Then, in 2012, the committee’s resistance broke when the opposition’s leader, the Socialist Agot Valle, suffered a stroke and had to leave the jury. (The sessions of the committee are strictly secret and none of its members want to comment on this account, but Mr. Lundestad, who attends all the meetings, says he won’t contradict it.)

Critics of the prize love this story. Is this really the way the world’s most prestigious prize ought to be decided upon, they ask? By a group of elderly Norwegians with a precooked agenda?

Listen to conversations around the Norwegian Parliament, the foreign ministry and the Oslo think tanks and you will hear a recurrent idea: why not form a world jury for the world prize? Why not appoint people like the laureates Kofi Annan, Shirin Ebadi or Amartya Sen, who would offer fresh world views?

The idea seems obvious and has charm, no doubt. But it would only replace one kind of politicization with another, probably even more pernicious one.

After all, imagine you had to invent a jury with integrity and a lack of vanity or need for limelight. You couldn’t go too wrong with a group of Norwegian ex-politicians.

This may have been what Mr. Nobel had in mind when he selected Norway as the state to deliver his peace prize. In contrast to Sweden, where the prizes for science are awarded, Norway never aspired to rule other nations and, from very early on, supported the idea of internationalism and peace conferences.

Moreover, where would the new line be drawn? Certainly someone of Mr. Annan’s stature could be included. But what about former political or business leaders, who might bring their own agendas to the table?

Talk of reforming the peace prize is overblown. While people can carp over individual honorees, through the 112-year course of the prize’s history, the Norwegian Nobel jury has not done such a bad job. What Geir Lundestad and his colleagues need is to take the damage reports as a warning call. They shouldn’t chase honorees to raise the profile of the prize, and they should be cautious and humble in any choice they make.

If there is another decision that points to politics, the Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary World History may have to rethink its appraisal for the appraisers.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

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