The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama last year, despite the very modest nature of his success in actually achieving peace so far, has stimulated a record number of nominations for the prize this year:
A record 237 people and organizations have been nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, with interest boosted by last year’s award to President Barack Obama, organizers said on Wednesday.
The world’s media focused on the Peace Prize after Obama was the unexpected choice for what some see as the world’s highest accolade, although he had been in office for just nine months and critics said he had only spelt out visions of peace.
“This is the highest number of nominations ... last year’s prize to Barack Obama has further enhanced interest in the prize,” Geir Lundestad, head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, told Reuters.
In fairness, Obama is far from the worst-qualified winner of the Prize. His candidacy was much more impressive than that of the assorted terrorists (e.g. Yasir Arafat and Sean MacBride) and totalitarian oppressors (Le Duc Tho) who have won the award previously. Looking at the full list of past winners, my tentative view is that Obama was better qualified than roughly the bottom 20-30% of his predecessors. In most cases, however, I reach that judgment based on a far less favorable view of some of the previous winners than the Nobel committee probably had. Still, one could argue that Obama was a worthy winner based on the implicit standards established by prior awards. Obama also deserves credit for making an excellent speech when he accepted the prize (see here and here for favorable assessments by my co-bloggers).
As a law professor, I’m one of the many people who have the right to enter nominations for the Peace Prize. I have given half-serious thought to nominating Vaclav Havel for his achievements in promoting human rights (for which he spent many years in prison under the communists), inspiring the peaceful “Velvet Revolution,” and presiding over the “Velvet Divorce” between Slovakia and the Czech Republic (which could have been a more dangerous situation without his efforts). I highly doubt, of course, that the Nobel committee will choose anyone based on my say-so. In any event, Havel’s reputation might be almost as much tarnished as enhanced by association with some of the previous winners.
UPDATE: Based on some of the comments, I should make clear that I don’t think that Havel’s reputation would suffer a net harm if he won the Prize. Many people still regard it as a great honor to win, despite the dubious nature of many of the previous winners. I do think, however, that association with the likes of Arafat would be a negative for Havel, or indeed anyone else. More generally, I was trying to suggest that the degradation of the Prize’s standards raises serious questions about whether it is any longer worthy of a true hero like Havel. However, my choice of words was poor, so I want to clarify my meaning.
UPDATE #2: I should also make clear that, on balance, I still think it would be a good thing if Havel won the prize. It would attract more public attention to his achievements, and might also help set the award itself back on the right track. If I thought that my nominating Havel would have any real influence with the committee, I would do it. Hopefully someone with greater influence will take the initiative to do so. However, the dubious nature of many of the past winners (of whom Obama was far from the worst), makes the prize a less worthy honor for someone like Havel than it would have been otherwise.