Ignoble Nobel

Last Friday morning, the world turned its gaze toward Norway, the narrow, fjord-fringed country that Americans associate with all things un-American: a comprehensive cradle-to-grave welfare program; a devotion to universalistic foreign policy and international philanthropy; a taste for rotten fish and bitter aquavit. At ten o’clock, I walked out of my news agency office and across Oslo’s leafy Palace Park to the Nobel Institute. It’s there that the Nobel committee’s chairman announces the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Built in 1867, the canary-yellow gilded-age mansion that houses the Institute has a warm, tranquil air. Its interior—three stories of lightwood parquet floors, soft colors, and high casement windows—does too. The American embassy, a jaggedly angular, obsidian structure, cater-corner to the Institute, with a high fence and cadre of machine gun wielding guards, throws its neighbor’s tranquility into sharp relief. As I walked past the embassy, it struck me that even on this beautiful October day—sunny and warm yet decidedly autumnal, the leaves on downtown Oslo’s many lime and maple trees just beginning to turn—the place still managed to look severe and foreboding. If I were superstitious, I might have seen this observation as some kind of portent.

I’m not superstitious, and as I mingled with the crowd of journalists in the third-floor Nobel Hall, I called my colleagues at the office to tell them that the buzz favored Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s top opposition leader and now prime minister. The Nobel Committee is fiercely secretive, but conventional wisdom has it that each year’s laureate is leaked to NRK, Norway’s national broadcaster, shortly before the official announcement. On Friday morning, NRK went high with Tsvangirai, and everybody else ran with it, suspecting that NRK knew what the rest of us didn’t.

This suspicion became conviction when a group of tall, dark-skinned black men in suits arrived fifteen minutes ahead of the announcement.

“You know what this means,” I heard a Norwegian reporter say to a colleague, who nodded knowingly. “I bet they knew in advance. How do you think they managed that?”

“Paid off the committee?” his colleague offered.


I found out a few minutes later that the group was a delegation from South Africa, which included 1993 laureate Nelson Mandela’s grandson Mandla; they were in Oslo on other business. I wasn’t surprised: NRK, like everyone else, is usually wrong about who will receive the Prize. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no short list of nominees, and a few academics with no insight into the committee’s deliberations orchestrate the yearly prognostications. As for the Nobel Committee, a Masonic secrecy surrounds their proceedings, and they never inform the year’s laureate in advance.

At eleven o’clock sharp, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland, who resembles a somewhat older Anderson Cooper, walked into the room, followed by the committee’s permanent nonvoting secretary, Geir Lundestad. Shutters clicked and flashes flared.

“The chairman’s coming out,” I said into my phone. I had left the line open to make sure I could get the name to my colleagues at the office as quickly as possible. They would be doing the day’s writing while I did the reporting, and my first job was to beat the radio and TV delays.

Silence descended as Jagland reached a podium surrounded by a semicircle of TV cameras. He bowed his head in greeting with a politician’s politesse.

“God morgen. Good morning,” he said.

“Den Norske Nobelkommité har bestemt at Nobels fredspris for 2009 skal tildeles President Barack Obama.”

“It’s Barack Obama,” I said into the phone.

An expletive of surprise—I forget which—came from the other end, followed by “Go, go, go,” and a burst of keys clacking.

Meanwhile, a collective gasp had gone up in the room, the kind I’d thought reserved for dramatic reenactments in made-for-TV documentaries. A sound like a room of owls hooting followed, and then everyone was talking at once. Jagland raised his voice as he continued to read from the citation, struggling to be heard above the clamor. Behind the chairman, Lundestad, the committee’s ever-serious secretary, tried to suppress a smirk before giving up and letting it burst into a toothy, dimpled smile.

By the time I checked in at the office three hours later, scores of pundits and politicians had already weighed in on the selection. And the American editorialists were just getting warmed up.

On the right, predictable sources hollered the expected opprobrium. Rush Limbaugh displayed his penchant for the mot juste, telling Newseek that “the Nobel gang just suicide-bombed themselves.” Michael Steele, chairman of the RNC, phrased his criticism more tactfully if more acidly, asking, “What has President Obama actually accomplished?”

In the mainstream media, the responses were less uniform. They ranged from pleasant surprise to bemusement to outrage. Most were negative. The critics tended to ask the question that I would ask of Jagland when I interviewed him later in the afternoon. Why Obama, and why now? Jagland answered that it was a conscious move on the part of the Nobel Committee to return to the spirit of idealism that underpins Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will, in which the Swedish industrialist laid the groundwork for the eponymous prizes, and to encourage the realization of that idealism. I didn’t believe him, and I still don’t, but not for the same reason as most American commentators.

Daily Beast columnist John Avalon, speaking Friday on CNN’s American Morning, observed that “partisan politics are obviously intruding in the Swedes’ decision here.” Excusing Avalon’s factual error—they’re Norwegians; Swedes jury the other four Nobel Prizes—I’d say he’s on the right track. But I’m also afraid his slip-up exposes the uselessness of his comment.

Avalon, I think, was referring to the American perception of Scandinavian politics as purely socialistic and ultra-left-wing, which, at least in the case of Norway, is about as misconceived as the notion that the natives actually drink aquavit or that the country is filled with soft-spoken, broad-minded philanthropists. In reality, Norwegians are an almost frighteningly nationalistic people who tend to prefer beer. On Constitution Day, crowds of drunk Norwegians clog the streets of Oslo and every other town, bristling with flags and blind patriotism. Likewise, Norway’s political landscape is not what Americans assume. For over a decade, it has been creeping steadily to the right, with the populist Progress Party now the country’s second largest and gaining ground by the election. It’s true that politics—of a sort—guided the Nobel Committee’s decision. But political ideology wasn’t the lodestar. Political savvy lit the way.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee consists of five members. They’re elected by the Norwegian parliament, and the party makeup of the committee reflects that of the parliament. At present, three members, including Jagland, come from the left, and two come from the right. It’s an explicitly political body. But it’s always been that way, and it’s only this year that the committee has gone out on such a limb. There have been other strange choices, but never quite as strange as this. Even the most oddball laureates usually make sense upon closer inspection.

There are two new committee members this year. One is Ågot Valle, of the Socialist Left. Her reputation is that of your average Nobel Committee member. She’s been a moderately successful politician within her party, and as a reward, she gets to retire in style. The second is Jagland. He’s an entirely different story, and I think there’s good reason to believe he was primarily responsible for Obama’s selection.

After Jagland finished reading the citation, the over-caffeinated journalists could hardly contain themselves. They fired off questions like grenade lobs. Most were less questions than slightly rephrased criticisms. But Jagland handled them with a politician’s aplomb, redirecting each question’s trajectory to keep the flak from hitting him. As the journalists watched deflection after deflection, they grew flustered, especially the international crowd. Wasn’t this guy the Nobel Committee chairman? Shouldn’t he be mild-mannered and professorial, forthcoming and generous in his answers?

But Jagland’s deft ripostes should have come as no surprise. Unlike the rest of the committee, he’s still a bona fide politician. His history includes tenures as prime minister, as foreign minister, and as the head of Norway’s long-dominant Labor Party. While the Nobel Committee was deliberating this year, he was still the outgoing president of parliament, and then, in September, he was elected the secretary-general of the Council of Europe. This is unusual. Although the committee is politically appointed, it does not, as a rule, consist of any active politicians. But that only means they can’t be active in Norwegian politics, and so the Council of Europe doesn’t count. In a sense, Jagland bucked the system.

I interviewed Jagland on Friday afternoon in the Nobel meeting room where the committee deliberates. Photographs of past laureates papered the wall behind him. Jagland parried my questions—and stuck to his talking points—with an adroitness only the most careful politicians can muster. His cautious answers suggested, I thought, someone whose political ambitions lay anywhere but behind him. He talked circles around my queries, quoting the official citation nearly verbatim at least once per answer. Then his assistant came in and told me we were out of time.

Ahead of Friday’s announcement, there already had been calls for Jagland to resign from the Nobel Committee. Political considerations, critics argued, would limit the committee’s decision-making ability. Those considerations stemmed in part from his role as outgoing president of parliament, but more from his role as the new secretary-general of a major pan-European organization. (This is a five-year appointment.) Jagland wouldn’t want to upset Russia, a major player in the Council of Europe, nor would he want to upset China, an important ally in the petroleum business for Norway, whose North Sea oil funds its comprehensive welfare system.

And this year was a good test of how Jagland would handle this challenge. Would he act in the best interest of the Nobel Peace Prize or in the best interest of his political career? Many considered Chinese dissidents and Russian human rights activists top contenders this year. A Chinese dissident would have made sense because this year marks a host of anniversaries: communist China’s diamond jubilee; the fiftieth anniversary of the annexation of Tibet; twenty years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, the year in which the prize went to the Dalai Lama. Furthermore, the uprisings this summer, in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as the human-rights farce that was 2008’s Beijing Olympics, provided further reason to use the prize to chastise the still-repressive Chinese regime. Or the July murder of Natalya Estemirova, which underscored the high mortality rate among the Kremlin’s critics, could have occasioned a prize to a Russian activist or organization, like Estemirova’s embattled Memorial group. Jagland could have silenced his critics by choosing from either camp.

He didn’t. After the announcement, it took only a few hours for the leaders of the Conservative Party and the Progress Party to call for Jagland’s resignation. Several university professors followed suit. Even members of Jagland’s own party asked him to abdicate the chairmanship.

Eva Kristen Hansen, a Labor MP, suggested resignation. She told the news agency NTB that Jagland’s “positions, as secretary-general of the Council of Europe and as chairman of the Nobel Committee, give rise to conflicts of interest. That sends the wrong signal.”

Jagland loves prestige. This is his reputation in Norway, and he demonstrated it earlier this year, when he fought hard for the much-coveted secretary-generalship of the Council of Europe, despite knowing the difficulties it might pose the Nobel Committee.

Admittedly, Jagland didn’t act alone; there are four other members of the committee. But two of them are serious left-wingers, likely to support Obama as laureate, and the other two are surprisingly compliant, which I realized after speaking to them on Friday. They were eager to talk—usually, they communicate exclusively through the chairman—but equally eager to defer to Jagland’s opinion. As for Jagland’s motive, I suspect, as certain Norwegian newspapers suggested over the weekend, that he had two things in mind. First, he wanted to make his inaugural year at the helm of the Nobel Committee one to remember. Second, he wanted, as he takes charge of the Council of Europe, to associate himself with Obama, to bathe himself in the glow that still surrounds the domestically beleaguered US president in Europe.

On Friday afternoon, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum asked, on the newspaper’s PostPartisan blog, why we should put so much stock in the decision of five “eccentric” Norwegians. That would have been a good question a century ago, but today it’s a silly one. And though the answer is tautological, it’s also correct: we should put stock in the Nobel Peace Prize because we already do. The prize has a long history of promoting and supporting important humanitarian efforts, and not ineffectually. In some cases, as when Willy Brandt won the prize in 1971 for his Ostpolitikk or when Mikhail Gorbachev won it in 1990 for his efforts to end the Cold War, the prize has even helped propel ongoing processes that made a real difference in the world.

The peace prize’s reputation makes it a powerful tool. It’s not always the right tool, and it’s not always effective, but it’s good to have around. This year’s prize might, in the end, prove useful; it might push Obama—or restore to him enough of his erstwhile political capital—to realize his promises. Regardless of its outcome, the likely rationale behind it degrades the prize as an institution. That’s not Obama’s fault; it’s Jagland’s. He shouldn’t chair another peace prize selection. To cheapen the Nobel Peace Prize by miring it in even more politics—and the personal politics of one Norwegian politician at that—would be an unforgivable waste.

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