The Nobel Peace Prize: A prestigious award or a political tool?

The former secretary of the Nobel committee has written that he regrets giving President Obama the award in 2009.

Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama looks at the Nobel Peace Prize medal at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway in December 2009.

The Nobel Peace Prize, an award that was established in 1901 to recognize outstanding achievement on behalf of mankind, a century later seems to have morphed into Norway’s magic geopolitical wand, wielded to encourage political action, rather than reward accomplishment.

In a memoir released Thursday by Geir Lundestad, the former secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee – a five-person group that selects the annual winner through top-secret methods – he revealed regret over the decision to give President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

"... the committee didn't achieve what it had hoped for," he wrote, according to The Associated Press. Furthermore, Dr. Lundestad wrote in his memoir, "Even many of Obama's supporters believed that the prize was a mistake."

When the committee awarded the prestigious prize to the brand new American president, no one was more shocked than the man himself. After all, he hadn’t yet had time to earn it.

“I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee,” the president said in the Rose Garden on the morning of his win in October of that year. “Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”

Maybe the aspirations were too high. The Nobel Committee latched on to the global enthusiasm for Obama, banking on his ability to deliver a strengthened United Nations, stronger international diplomacy, and nuclear disarmament, as Dr. Lundestad insinuated in a 2011 speech at the 16th Annual Nobel Peace Prize Festival at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where he tried to explain the committee's decision two years prior.

But Obama's award is just one of many controversies surrounding the group. It has faced criticism over winners since the awards program was founded in 1901. The Nobel Peace Prize was developed at the bequest of the Swedish chemist, engineer, and the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, who left much of his fortune for the establishment of the Nobel prizes.

Mr. Nobel ensured that the committee would be affected by politics when he stipulated in his will that the members of the Norwegian peace-prize-granting group be appointed by the country’s parliament.

Today, the committee mirrors the political makeup of Norway’s government, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported, with two people appointed by the Labor Party, two from the Conservative Party and one from the Progress Party. This has caused continuous debate about its independence.

The committee's prize decisions face constant scrutiny. In 2010, the prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, offending China which retaliated by freezing diplomatic relations and trade talks with Norway.

In a controversial move in 1994, it awarded the prize to Yasser Arafat, the decades-long leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Time magazine wrote, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” about the award decision.

Mr. Arafat received the prize along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, all honored for their work on the Oslo peace accords, the first peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people.

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