End the Nobel Peace Prize

The Trump nomination shows that peace had its chance, and blew it.

The Nobel Peace Prize medal in crosshairs
Getty / The Atlantic

Trolls are a Scandinavian invention, straight from the frigid sagas of Norse mythology, but Christian Tybring-Gjedde, a Norwegian parliamentarian, swears that he is not one. Observers of his antics this week could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. On Wednesday, he announced that he had nominated Donald J. Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. “Can you name a person who has done more for peace than President Trump?” Tybring-Gjedde asked me, insisting that the question was a serious one. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, agreed. ”This is a hard-earned and well-deserved honor for the president,” she said. Tybring-Gjedde defended his nomination on Fox News remotely, and to me in person at a café in Oslo. “Do we give the prize to Greta Thunberg, for screaming about the environment?” he asked. “The agreement he made between Israel and the United Arab Emirates could mean peace between Israel and the Arab world. That is like the [Berlin] Wall falling down.” Today the White House reportedly will announce that Bahrain, another Gulf monarchy, will recognize Israel.

If Trump wins the prize, it will be the fourth Nobel awarded for peace between Israel and its neighbors. (The announcement will come on October 9.) That will make Arab-Israeli peace mediators more successful at charming the Nobel Committee than the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has won three times in the prize’s 120-year history, but still less successful than my favorite, which is no one at all. The committee has declined to award a peace prize 19 times, most recently in 1972. (The next year, in a decision so trollish it might have come out of the Prose Edda, they awarded the prize to Henry Kissinger.) Giving the peace prize to no one at all is a tradition the Nobel Committee should revive, perhaps on a permanent basis. The record of achievement of the peace laureates is so spotty, and the rationales for their awards so eclectic, that the committee should take a long break to consider whether peace is a category coherent enough to be worth recognizing. Peace had its chance, and blew it. The Trump nomination—one of hundreds, including this second from a Swede—helps show why.

Tybring-Gjedde is from Norway’s Progress Party, a right-wing populist answer to the established parties of the right and left. (National parliamentarians are entitled to nominate candidates for the prize. So are professors, past laureates, and various other bigwigs from international organizations.) His nomination of Trump strikes me as preposterous. “Other politicians don’t pick up the phone to talk,” Tybring-Gjedde said. “He has the ability to be down-to-earth and talk to people at all levels.” Tybring-Gjedde notes that Alfred Nobel listed as one of the criteria for the winners that they encourage “peace congresses”—and what is a peace congress but a conversation between people who are not at peace? In my view the deal between the Emirates and Israel is good for the region, but a deal between Israel and the absolute monarchs of a small Gulf state is not a deal between Israel and the people of the Emirates, let alone between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump’s main diplomatic maneuver is to adopt a lickspittle posture toward authoritarians, promising them decades in power in return for a smile and a condo development. Peace does not mean a web of personal agreements between rich psychopaths.

But if the opening of dialogue, no matter how demeaning or ineffectual, and signing of deals, no matter how undemocratic, are a condition of the prize, then Tybring-Gjedde’s case has merit. All the Nobel Committee really needs to know it could have learned in kindergarten. “Isn’t it strange,” Tybring-Gjedde asked, “that in school you learn that to talk to people is the best thing? And now we are told talking to the wrong people is a bad thing. Maybe [if you talk] you will notice that [the other guy] is not as bad as you think.”

Previous awards, he said, have acknowledged this. Kim Dae-jung won the prize in 2000, for trying and failing to make peace with North Korea. “Look at the Oslo Accords,” Tybring-Gjedde said. Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin won jointly in 1994 for a peace process begun at meetings a short walk from where we were speaking—and then fell apart completely a few years later. “How many months of secret back-and-forth were there, and they ended up with no peace. They got the peace prize!”

Another of Nobel’s criteria for the prize, he noted, is “the abolition or reduction of standing armies.” In his wisdom, Tybring-Gjedde said, Trump has withdrawn soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. I pointed out that Trump also boasts that he is building up the standing armies of the United States. But reduction does not necessarily mean troop numbers, Tybring-Gjedde retorted. “If you don’t use your soldiers, the best ones will quit. If you’re a doctor, and you only get to use your skills on a doll—of course you quit. And that is what will happen with Trump.” He approved of Trump’s comments on Monday, in which he accused his top military advisers of being corporate vampires, “[wanting] to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs … stay happy.”

“So Trump is promoting peace by weakening the U.S. military?”

“Well, he doesn’t think of it that way.”

“Do we give someone a Nobel Prize for the effect of his action, but not his intention?” At this he hesitated and said the effect and intention of the Israeli-Emirati agreement were aligned, and that was what should matter.

He admitted that Trump won’t win the prize, if only because of the man’s vulgarity and crude behavior. “I know a couple of [the five members of the committee],” he said. “And they are looking for people who should behave a certain way. It’s not like chemistry—if they find out you have four divorces and are bad personally, they will never not give you the chemistry prize for that.”

By now the contradictions of the peace prize should be apparent. Is it given for peace, or for rumors of peace? Do you deserve a prize for maintaining despots, as long as the despots are part of a stable network? Is it given for accidentally wrecking a great military—or only if the destruction is intentional? What if you do all the right things, but you are a boor, or an alleged rapist? To these questions one might add a counsel of humility: If you have given the prize to enablers of genocide, kleptocrats, serial fabricators, and AIDS conspiracists, maybe you should sit out the next few rounds.

The peace prize has always been subjective—more so than the science prizes and, I would argue, the literature prize—and it is healthy for the prize to evolve, as we come to a better understanding of how to achieve durable peace. But its incoherence has become too great. The honor doesn’t incentivize peace, if one year you give it to Kissinger (starter of many conflicts, ender of one), and another you give it to Mother Teresa (who never started a war, but who—as Christopher Hitchens liked to point out—used her Nobel lecture to inform the world that the “greatest destroyer of world peace” was abortion). Tybring-Gjedde suggests that brief conversations with hideous men are a reason to award the prize, and its history suggests that he might be right. Then again, Barack Obama won the prize in 2009, while refusing to meet with Kim Jong-il and, by the way, expanding America’s drone program. (He won for his promotion of, notably not his success in achieving, “cooperation between peoples.”)

All of this points to one of two conclusions: The Nobel Committee can either give the prize to do-gooder organizations such as the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders (and play things extra safe), or it can keep the prize locked away for a while, and reevaluate its reasoning for a modern era. I suspect that that reevaluation will end, if the committee is honest, with the admission that peace can be recognized only by its fruits, which take decades to mature, and not by its seeds. To keep giving awards for the seeds is to court embarrassment, and to make yourself hostage to wacky attention-seeking nominations like Trump’s. Better to shut it down, before the trolls do first.