No award confers a greater guarantee of integrity and moral seriousness than the Nobel Peace Prize. Now Al Gore, former US Vice-President, former presidential candidate, Oscar winner and soothsayer of climate change, has ascended to the pantheon of Alfred Nobel’s peacemakers. There he joins luminaries like Albert Schweitzer, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Andrei Sakharov.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee was certainly courting controversy when it garlanded Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its decision has been interpreted as a two-fingered salute to George Bush, an endorsement of dubious science or truckling to the greenies. But this is unfair: the Peace Prize has always been provocative.
Statesmen were controversial choices from the start. In 1906, the committee awarded it to Teddy Roosevelt for his role in bringing an end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. He is one of America’s greatest presidents, but also a benevolent imperialist whose motto was “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Since Norway had only become independent from Sweden in 1905, journalists interpreted the decision as a quiet plea for “a large, friendly neighbour -– even if he is far away.”
And interfering in domestic politics is nothing new either. In 1935, on the eve of World War II, it was awarded to Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist in a Nazi concentration camp for his opposition to German re-armament. It had never before been awarded to a person who opposed his own government’s policies. A Norwegian newspaper at the time even protested that “a lasting peace between peoples and nations can only be achieved by respecting the existing laws”. In hindsight, the committee made an admirable and courageous choice. (Ossietzky died in prison in 1938.)
The odd thing about this year’s award is not its controversy, but that the laureates have done nothing for peace. The 2004 laureate, Kenyan Wangari Maathai, was also an environmentalist, but at least she was an activist for women’s rights. When it comes to fighting for peace, Gore and the IPCC haven’t done a blessed thing. They haven’t even talked about doing a blessed thing. So the real laureate for 2007 is the “precautionary principle” — sometime, somewhere, something awful might happen. This is clear from the text of the Prize press release:
“Extensive climate changes may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind. They may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth’s resources. Such changes will place particularly heavy burdens on the world’s most vulnerable countries. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states.” [Italics added]
Isn’t there something a bit loopy about canonising the precautionary principle? Poor old Immanuel Velikovsky died too soon. He would have joined the pantheon for warning humanity of the danger of collisions with asteroids. You can just imagine the political upheaval which may occur if one of them flattens Oslo.
So many catastrophes are waiting to happen nowadays. Calamities are everywhere, each with its scenario of human rights violations, increased competition and wars. The terrifying consequences of the obesity epidemic, stranger danger, the depression epidemic, decreasing biodiversity, discrimination against homosexuals, religious fundamentalism and not flossing your teeth have yet to be explored by the Peace Prize Committee.
Granting Nobel Prizes for averting disasters which might happen is a sign that the committee is running out of ideas about peace. It was not always thus. In 1997, it awarded the prize to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its coordinator Jody Williams. Is it blind to the long list of genuine causes in the same vein? Trafficking of women? Treatment of refugees? Forced abortions? Religious oppression? Surely campaigners against these ghastly realities are persons who, as Nobel stipulated, “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.
Perhaps the fundamental problem with the Nobel Peace Prize is the philosophy which inspires it. It assumes that lasting peace can be achieved through political activism and improved technology.
Nobel was a religious sceptic, a child of the Enlightenment who believed that technological progress was human progress. He even believed that dynamite, the invention which made his fortune, would end wars. In 1891, 23 years before the slaughter of World War I, he wrote to peace activist Bertha von Suttner that “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”
The folly of this has been proved over and over again in the 20th Century. Handing an award to climate change whistleblowers simply perpetuates the error of thinking that there will ever be lasting peace without a clear conception of justice and a shared vision of truth.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.