Can a Nobel Peace Prize make peace harder to achieve?

by on October 10, 2009 at 3:08 am in Political Science | Permalink

David Axelrod spoke:

“I’d like to believe that winning the Nobel Peace Prize is not a political liability,” said David Axelrod,
a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “But this isn’t something I gave a
moment of thought to until today. Hopefully people will receive it with
some sense of pride. But I don’t know; it’s uncharted waters.”

Putting aside domestic responses, can holding a Peace Prize make it harder to bring about peace?  I believe the answer is yes.  The positive scenario is that holding the Prize signals strength and induces other bargainers to jump aboard your winning bandwagon, for fear of being locked out of an eventual agreement.  The more negative scenario arises when the Prize holder is expected to pressure Country X, Ruritania.  If the Prize holder secretly wishes to favor Ruritania in negotiations, a President without a Prize can to some extent feign or credibly signal weak bargaining power: "I'm sorry, Ruritania just won't budge; you'll have to move closer to their position."  It's harder for the Prize holder to send this same signal, since everyone expects him to get Ruritania to budge (if not, the Prize holder also doesn't have any bargaining advantages either).  The Prize holder may find it harder to deal with truly intransigient nations; fortunately we don't have many of those in the world right now. 

Related arguments are that a Prize can make it harder to practice strategies of "creative ambiguity" or "low expectations."

David Frum suggests the Prize makes it harder for Obama to be hawkish

1 Eli October 10, 2009 at 4:28 am

Obama also awarded Nobel prize in chemistry. “He’s just got great chemistry,” says Nobel Committee.
Be careful what you wish for, I think…

2 capitalistimperialistpig October 10, 2009 at 4:48 am

It’s easy to construct such “just so” stories that affect prospects in almost any way one likes. The most common use of the prize is to call attention to ideas or activities that the prize committee thinks need more attention.

One thing you left out is that the prize might influence the motivation of the recipient to work harder for peace (to deserve the prize) or less hard (hecause he has already gotten credit in that department).

3 drscroogemcduck October 10, 2009 at 4:57 am

i think it makes it easier for obama to carry out a hawkish strategy because he has already crossed off the nobel prize on his list.

4 Chris Dornan October 10, 2009 at 7:05 am

It seems to be nearly all downside. My main concern is that he is going to have to unpick some nonsensical strategic commitments in Afghanistan (or I certainly hope so) and normalise relations with Iran (well I certainly hope so). Both of those are going to require some adjustments which the US public will have to accept. I can’t see how this prize can’t but complicate the process. I can’t see why it can’t push him into a more hawkish political space. It worries me that Axelrod only seems to have thought of this *after* the decision to accept was made.

5 holmegm October 10, 2009 at 8:18 am

It’s very strange to see people discussing this as if it were somehow non-ludicrous.

6 babar October 10, 2009 at 9:21 am

well, it’s probably good for the man’s self-esteem.

7 DanC October 10, 2009 at 10:42 am

Congratulations to President Obama. Just be careful at the Nobel awards, those folks have an awful crush on you.

Krugman did some good work on trade but the timing of his award seemed political.

The award to President Obama was a political statement by the Nobel committee. So who really cares what they think. I think by being so political they have tarnished the awards a bit beyond that I don’t see the big deal.

Gary Becker has written about how boards of charities often morph into activists organizations, captured by special interests that the founder of the charity would not recognize. Buffett has arranged to give away his money quickly to avoid this problem.

8 Edward Burke October 10, 2009 at 12:28 pm

The day after, it’s not too late to ask: why is it that Candidate Obama’s enunciation on 1 August 2007 (in his talk before the Woodrow Wilson Institute) of his commitment to pursue a course of US unilateralism and “pre-emptive war” (“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will. . . . I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America”)–why is it, and how is it, that these “words” are somehow to be eclipsed by his “words” of 9 October 2009? If it is the case that only Obama’s most recent utterances express his actual intention, if it is the case that only his most recent words are ever going to express his actual intention–then what future “words” of his must we wait for, in order to determine exactly where he stands on any issue whatsoever? Is this a tenable political methodology?

Likewise, I for one would love to see some intrepid journalist recover the actual transcripts of the actual words that Sen. Obama uttered on his August 2006 visit to his paternal ancestral homeland: did his “words” in Kenya in fact inflame Luo opposition to the Kikuyu-led government of President Mwai Kibaki and contribute to the ensuing civil strife that led to the deaths of over 1000 Kenyans, Kikuyu and Luo alike?

“Peace, peace, when there is no peace . . .”

9 rob October 10, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Nobody here is thinking from the Norwegians point of view. I believe they think they awarded the prize to Bush’s Opposite. What has he accomplished? He peacefully overthrew the world’s most powerful evil regime! Is that not enough for you?

As far as the prize working against Obama: If you assume a Peace Prize signals that you are more peaceful:

1) Perhaps a threat of military action would be taken more credibly, not less. Being known for peace isn’t the same thing as being known for bluffing. Instead, it would signal you are successful at negotiating positive outcomes for yourself, meaning that you are not a pushover.

2) Are there not situations in which others trusting you to be more peaceful have more positive outcomes?

10 Bill October 10, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Think of the Nobel Committee’s nomination in game theoretic terms.

Think of this nomination as a way to resolve a coordination problem: by nominating Obama, it makes it easier for others to coordinate around the direction of the United States.

Assume an alternative universe: that Tony Blair had been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize and then had been nominated for an EU foreign policy position. Europe and the rest of the world could have coordinated around that nodal choice.

So, to me, the Nobel Committee was doing everyone a favor: trusting Obama and enabliing other leaders to coalesce around his leadership in doing what they all want to do.

There is also one may way to look at this: that the Nobel Committee awarded the US with a soft power tool. How will Hugo Chavez now be able to talk about American leadership to his citizens? How will Ahmnajinjad be able to claim Obama is a terrorist and say that to his population which is aware of the award.

Recognize that this is a gift of soft power. We should not try to diminish it and should use it for all it is worth.

11 Anonymous Coward October 10, 2009 at 5:50 pm

So, I hear Obama is up for a Heisman Trophy this year. Keep your finger’s crossed.

No, on a more serious vein, its not a gift of soft power so much as a recognition of it, and of his popularity with the Norwegian political classes.

12 DanC October 10, 2009 at 9:53 pm

A soft power tool? Against Chavez and and Ahmnajinjad. Like these people really care about public opinion in their countries. Please double check Iranian elections or freedom of the press in Venezuela.

13 Barkley Rosser October 11, 2009 at 4:07 am

Did the prize make Kissinger or Arafat less hawkish? My guess is the impact of the prize will be a wash as
the various effects described by the post and commenters here wash out. By 2012 the domestic impact will probably
be zero.

For those complaining about the prize being given for good intentions or pretty talk, well, some have noted that this
is exxactly what is in the will of Nobel, and that this prize more than many recent ones actually conforms better to
his will.

For those who think this is “surreal” (dearieme) or “ludicrous” (holmegm) or “just political” (DanC), well, while
the committee did not refer to actual outcomes, Obama has achieved some. A big one is the agreement with Iran to
have the solid majority of their enriched uranium sent to Russia for reprocessing for medical reactor use. I keep
reading that all Obama has done is get negotiations going, but this was an agreement reached already on the first day,
and many of those mocking this prize have also been yapping about the threat of Iran getting nuclear weapons. If that
was a threat, then it has now been substantially reduced, a pretty substantial achievement, and more concretely this
agreement will probably reduce the threat of an Isreali military attack on Iran. Smart diplomacy by agreeing not to
install ABM sites in Eastern Europe brought Russia on board with this, a signal achievement by Obama.

Also, within the last days it has been announced that Turkey and Armenia will open diplomatic relations. Now they
have not been on the verge of outright war, but they have been major enemies since at least 1915, and Obama has been
reported to be the key figure in this breakthrough. Indeed, given that the announcement came after the prize, it
might be that this breakthrough was at least one that might have been postively affected by the prize.

14 DanC October 11, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Well Barkley

Nobel is quoted as saying “Good wishes alone will not ensure peace.”

Only five people sit on the panel that decides the peace prize.

And if you think Obama has done great things in international relations, well I guess everyone has one.

15 handy aufladen October 12, 2009 at 12:11 am

American and President Obama should be proud and honoured to be selected. Obama has achieved some and will achieved most of his goals for world peace.

16 Barkley Rosser October 12, 2009 at 4:15 am


Sure. Israel and Iran. Discussing Israel and Palestine in this thread is pointless. The current governments
are not likely to make any agreements, and we have seen quite a few Nobels given for agreements in that problem,
without leading to the problem being solved. Arafat and Rabin anyone?


“Everyeone has one”? Really? Can you name one for George W. Bush during his entire eight years? Oh, I know.
We have friendlier governments in Iraq and Afghanistan than we did when he came into office. Of course.
Definitely Nobel Peace Prize worthy.

17 Jose Martinez October 17, 2009 at 10:14 am

resident Obama should donate his Nobel Peace Prize funds to the U.S. government to pay for his two Scandanavian trips: 1. Copenhagen for his failing bid to push the Olympic games there and 2. To pick up Nobel Peace Prize funds. Each trip cost the U.S. taxpayer about $ 920,000 for Air Force One, security etc.

And there is the issue of how the Nobel foundation funds invested in Swedish armament industry and in weapons of mass destruction. Sweden is the worlds largest exporter of arms (per capita), followed by Israel.

1. Originally the directive from Alfred Nobel was to place the funds in real estate or similar safe investments, however since 1953 the foundation was allowed by the Swedish government to invest in shares, which stopped the hither to depletion of the funds.

2. The funds are at the moment approx US$ 500 million in total (it shrunk approx 20% last year).

3. The management is not done by the foundation itself, it is split across several (about ten) portfolios managed by different asset managers in Sweden and other countri es, the spread across countries and by asset type can be found here:

4. As late as 2005, there is an explicit admission from the foundation that there are NO ethical guidelines issued to the asset managers: – in Norwegian)

5.There have been several ‘scandals’ surrounding the asset management, presumably deriving from the lack of ethical guidelines from the Nobel foundation

– In 1998, the Observer made an investigation into the investments and found that many of the world largest arms manufactureres (including Boeing, British Aerospace, GKN och Smiths Industries) were in the Nobel foundation portfolios

– in 2005, a Norwegian organization ‘Norwatch’ looked specifically into the portfolio handled by a US firm group called T Rowe Price who in their general portfolios have manufacturers of both cluster bombs and atomic bombs (Lockheed Martin). The Nobel foundation did not exclude the possibility that their funds were invested in such shares

6. it is probable that such investments are held in the the Bofor group, which has a high level chemical plant in Ifshahan, Iran, which manufactures TNT, and quite likely sophisticated chemical precursors used to help create nuclear enriched uranium.

However, dynamite and related products was the original invention and=2 0business which gave Alfred Nobel the means to set up the prize in the first place, and he was the owner of Bofors from 1894-96, during which he “had the key role in reshaping the iron manufacturer to a modern cannon manufacturer (…)” :

No doubt the prestige of the prize to a large degree derives from the large sums involved, but is therefore also stained by the way the money was and is procured.

But the prestige also derives from Alfred Nobels testamentary wish to promote peace and international understanding.

The paradox the funds for the Nobel Prize are invested and retained in funds related to armament productions and weapons of mass destruction and many people are unaware of this situation.

18 Prefabrik December 15, 2010 at 10:25 am

Nice article about Nopel Prize. I’m glad to read this fluent article.

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