Sunday, October 13, 2013

Oslo Signals, Or the Meaning of the Nobel Peace Prize

It’s always anti-climactic when an organization wins a prize meant for single human being. The purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize should be to reward a human being for their work, as Alfred Nobel’s will puts it, “for the fraternity between nations, for the abolition and reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promoting of peace congresses.” But the will also specifically says the prize should go to a “person.” Yet this is the second year in a row the Prize has been awarded to an organization.

The key to understanding why the Committee acted as they did is the name of the organization: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The Nobel Committee awarded the 2013 Peace Prize for “its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons” primarily through its attempts to get countries to become signatories of its Chemical Weapons Convention. An undeniably noble (no pun intended) mission that fits neatly within the conception of the Committee’s purpose of rewarding the peacemakers.

The second question to which the mind runs after answering “why?” is “why now?” Surely the OPCW could have used the money from the Prize much more when they started in 1997. Their current budget is around $95 million, or $25 million more than it was in the late 1990s. The timing is not about throwing a monetary life-saver to a deserving but poor non-profit; instead, it’s about signaling.

The OPCW has recently undertaken a task never before attempted: the oversight and verification of the destruction of a country’s chemical weapons stockpile while that country is in the middle of a civil war. As part of an effort to bring Syria’s al-Assad government into the community of civilized nations, the United States brokered an agreement with Syria’s patron state Russia to rid Syria of its chemical weapons in exchange the United States not launching a missile attack against the al-Assad regime’s forces.

The Committee, however, did not just award the Prize to the OPCW for the purity of its motives and the degree of difficulty of the task it faces. No, the award is a signal to the world at large that the Committee is rewarding the adherence of nations to the principles of multilateralism, international law, and cooperation over the use of force. The OPCW is a symbol of a commitment the Kantian ideal of solving problems between states through institutions rather than the use of force. That’s why the Committee awarded the Prize last year to the European Community, not in specific recognition for a particular act, but to reward a group of nations going through the worst economic crisis of their existence who acted to solve their problems as a group rather than balkanizing. Granted, the Committee stated that the EU’s Prize was for “over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” but, again, the EU has been doing that sort of thing for years; its timing is what gives the Prize its significance.

Once one accepts that the Committee is promoting the idea of security and peace through multilateral institutionalism, their more curious – not to say controversial – awards make more sense. President Obama, for example, received the Prize after a scant nine months in office, primarily as a signal to the world of the Committee’s displeasure at the Bush Administration’s unilateral approach to international relations and casual approach to international law, not because of any accomplishment of his own. Other Prize recipients – Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela - have both metaphorical and literal blood on their hands, having spent their lives orchestrating or fighting conflicts. 

The important thing for the Nobel Committee, however, was that they worked to make peace at a critical time, restoring order and bringing countries back into the community of nations. In fact, this is part of the signal: Arafat was not being rewarded for his lifetime of violent conduct within the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but for his attempt to bring peace to the Middle East by bringing the PLO to the bargaining table with Israel. So too is the Committee rewarding the OPCW not just for its good works, but for its good works at a critical point in the history of international relations.

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