Bias in the Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Prize for Pleasing Norwegian Parliamentarians

by Gwydion M. Williams

The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the world’s most famous awards, conferring an aura of virtue on the recipients. Does it deserve this reputation?

First, what is it? It is one of five prizes created by the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite as a safe alternative to other explosives. Some people see irony in a peace prize created by a dynamite-maker, but I can’t agree. Dynamite owes its fame to its usefulness in peaceful uses of explosives. It has been used in warfare, but other explosives are more suitable.

The Peace Prize is controlled by the Norwegian Parliament – an odd arrangement stipulated by the will of Alfred Nobel, at a time when Norway and Sweden were still loosely linked in a political union that had been imposed in 1814. Nobel died in 1896: Norway became independent in 1905 after both sides contemplated war and the Swedes decided it was not worth it. The Peace Prize began in 1901 and remains in the gift of Norwegian politicians, while the other prizes are controlled by Swedes. The Norwegians distance themselves by appointing a Committee, but is seems mostly composed of former parliamentarians and would reflect their viewpoint. [A]

Norway remains in NATO and was involved in the US operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Norwegians have a very enlightened attitude about the welfare of their own people, but not so enlightened when it comes to foreigners.

Past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize include Theodore Roosevelt, a man who made his name in the Spanish-American War and who organised the secession of Panama from Columbia when Columbia asked too high a price for cooperation in building the Panama Canal. Another winner was Woodrow Wilson in 1919, after he had led the USA into the First World War after being elected on an apparent promise to stay out. Winner in 1925 was Austen Chamberlain, organiser of the British campaigns in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in that same war. (Also a strong supporter of Britain’s Black-and-Tan war against Ireland under Lloyd George.)

Some of the other winners have better records, but they were all solidly from Europe and its overseas settlements until 1960, when Zulu leader Albert Lutuli won. He was President of the African National Congress, in South Africa, so presumably it was an effort to push white-ruled South Africa into moving into line with changing Western attitudes. Mahatma Gandhi had earlier been nominated five times but never got it, with no prize awarded in 1948, the year of his death. It has been claimed that the prize could not be awarded posthumously, but they did just this in 1961 for Dag Hammarskjold.

Adolph Hitler was seriously considered for the 1938 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Neville Chamberlain, who had kindly given Hitler everything he’d asked for in Czechoslovakia. [B] If Hitler had held off waging war another year or two he might have got Peace Prize – instead he invaded Norway, which rather spoiled their view of him.

Henry Kissinger winning in 1973 has been widely considered as making the prize absurd. This wasn’t true in the light of past winners. The greater honour went to co-negotiator Le Duc Tho, who turned it down because there was still no peace at the time.[C] Actual peace was obtained the next year, when Saigon was captured and renamed Ho Chi Minh City. But Le Duc Tho showed some dignity in refusing the gimcrack award, a distinction he shares with Jean-Paul Sartre, who refused the Literature Prize in 1964.

The prestige of the Nobel prizes is based on the three awards for science – one for Physics, one for Chemistry and one for ‘Physiology or Medicine’, which has mostly meant biology. These three science prizes are awarded by Swedes and are the most widely respected indicators of scientific excellence. Not perfect: there have been some controversies: for instance a Chinese born American physicist called Chien-Shiung Wu contributed to the work that won the 1957 Nobel Physics Prize for disproving parity, but did not share the prize (which is quite often split between three people, and was so split in both 1956 and 1958). Many people think that it made a difference that Chien-Shiung Wu was female. The same applies to the 1974 award for Pulsars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell was the first to notice something odd, but was a female graduate student and got passed over. Fred Hoyle was one of those who protested at the time, and he did not get a share in the 1983 prize that got given to William Alfred Fowler for work based on Hoyle’s brilliant prediction of an energy level crucial to the synthesis of elements inside of stars. In chemistry, Dmitri Mendeleev missed the 1906 prize by one vote, even though his Periodic Table was a basic advance. He might have got it later, but died in 1907. [D]

There is much less controversy over the Nobel Prize in Literature, mainly because no one can be confident about who does or doess not merit it. A lot of the winners were already famous, and many others remain obscure. A lot of writers acknowledged to be great did not get it. It is much harder to know which writers will matter long-term than it is with scientists.

I’d also say that the Nobel Prizes have earned their status, for all their faults. Other prizes have just the same faults and may be considerably more biased. It’s the best standard there is for science. Even the peace prize makes sense if you see it as a reward for achieving peace rather than for life-long dedication to good causes. As for literature, a global standard not intended to favour any one language is bound to be tricky.

The same tolerance should not be shown towards the “Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences”, established and funded by the Bank of Sweden. They somehow persuaded the Nobel Committee to let dubious economists be given the glamour that was actually merited by the various scientists, writers and peace-makers. It has been awarded since 1969, and has lent credability to characters like Hayek and Friedman – I have detailed elsewhere why their theories are nonsense.[E] The global financial system is now overstrained with dubious debts, because a lot of people were persuaded that wildly unrealistic theories had the soundness of real science.

To summarise, Nobel Prizes are distinguished but imperfect, reflecting a Swedish or Norwegian viewpoint rather than some Higher Truth. You don’t need to be very special or virtuous to win the Nobel Peace Prize, though some worthy winners have been selected to keep up the value of the award. It has also been used as a reward to politicians who make an important peace, even if their lifetime record is rather warlike.


[A] []

[B] Tariq Ali, The ignoble Nobel, []

[C] []

[D] []

[E] Milton Friedman, Banker’s Pet. Also Hayek and the Liberalettes, and Orwell on Hayek and Dickens, in which I quote some sharp insights that George Orwell made back in 1944

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2008.

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