President Obama's awarding of the Noble Peace Prize may be more about making a strong statement condemning what came before than it is a desire to reward the man who will benefit from the news. At a time when Obama is facing the sharpest criticism of his still-nascent Presidency, the Noble win temporarily distracts from Afghanistan, Health Care Reform, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, banking regulation, Guantanamo Bay, and a variety of other items on the agenda. It will dominate the news cycle at least for today and likely into the weekend, with all the usual suspects chiming in to comment. Obama's resume towards world reconciliation and peace activism around the globe, up until now, has been on the thin side, though he has certainly taken much care to begin to undo the damage of the Bush presidency. I welcome the announcement, though I wonder if perhaps those with a lower profile might have been more deserving.
One also wonders what impact this award will have on the President's domestic approval rating or the public support for his substantial agenda. The Nobel Peace Prize has a long history of courting controversy, and one expects to see no small degree of backlash from conservatives along the same lines as when Al Gore won in 2007. My initial thought is that this event, notable though it is, really won't make much difference either way. It will be a short-term matter that Obama will rightly use to bolster what he wishes to accomplish, particularly in a diplomatic context. The Republicans will scream bloody murder and the Democrats will release complimentary press releases which politely reveal nothing more than safe, unsubstantial praise.
Contemplating why the awards themselves were established explains something of their presumptive function. The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of the explosives dynamite and gelignite, set up a series of separate prize designations in his will. Winners of these prizes would also be rewarded with a substantial cash prize paid out of Nobel's personal fortune. Upon his death, a committee was instructed to award the most deserving person who had to advanced human improvement in a each of a variety of areas. Ever since their establishment, the committee has often broadly interpreted Nobel's rather vague directives.
The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way:
The capital shall be invested by my executors in safe securities and shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
It was a premature obituary published in a French newspaper that led Nobel to establish these prizes that bear his name.
The obituary stated Le marchand de la mort est mort ("The merchant of death is dead") and went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." On 27 November 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality.
Nobel himself was the owner of a large factory which designed war munitions and combined with his brilliant discoveries regarding explosive substances, he is a reminder that human progress and innovation can be used to kill millions of people in open combat. Not only that, he is a sobering example that we ourselves might prove to be our own undoing when we selfishly advance our own sordid motives at the expense of our brothers and sisters. Thus, the Nobel Prizes are a lasting testament to one man's atonement and his desire to seek forgiveness. This is an unselfish gesture I do not believe was made to whitewash over past sins. It would be wise to keep that solemn fact in mind when we contemplate the very intent of the awards themselves. Though we need and must continue to cite instances where the wealthy and powerful destroy human unity on behalf of the pursuit of profit, there are those like Nobel who aim to leave a lasting legacy behind them as more than butchers, or amoral profiteers, or purveyors of anguish. Political footballs aside and back and forth arguments aside, we shouldn't let petty grievances detract from the power and grave reverence these awards demand.