Of the four US presidents who have been given a Nobel Prize–Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama–the one who’s shown the cleanest pair of heels when it comes to escaping the world’s guffaws for the absurdity of the award is Jimmy Carter.
It’s easy to throw mud at TR. The excuse for his prize, awarded in 1906, was his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War. But what the committee of those worthy Norwegians was actually saying was that when it comes to giving a US president the peace prize, the bar has to be set awfully low. After all, TR was fresh from sponsorship of the Spanish-American War and ardent bloodletting in the Philippines.
He accepted the prize not long after he’d displayed his boundless compassion for humanity by sponsoring an exhibition of Filipino “monkey men” in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair as “the missing link” in the evolution of man from ape to Aryan, and thus in sore need of assimilation, forcible if necessary, to the American way. On receipt of the prize, Roosevelt promptly began planning the dispatch of the Great White Fleet (sixteen Navy battleships of the Atlantic Fleet) on a worldwide tour to display Uncle Sam’s imperial credentials.
Wilson, the liberal imperialist with whom Obama bears some marked affinities, won the Nobel Peace Prize for 1919. The rationale was his effort to establish the League of Nations. His substantive achievement was to have brought America into the carnage of World War I and to have refined the language and ideology of liberal interventionism. Between TR and Wilson, it’s hard to say who was the more fervent racist. Probably Wilson. As governor of New Jersey he was a fanatical proponent of the confinement and sterilization of “imbeciles,” a eugenic crusade that culminated in the US Immigration Act of 1924, which barred Jews and other suspect genetic material from entering the United States. Much against their will, many of these excluded Jews made their way to Palestine. Others involuntarily stayed in place in Russia and Eastern Europe and were murdered by the Nazis. Above all, Wilson at Versailles was the sponsor of ethnic nationalism, the motive force for the Final Solution. And they say Obama’s award has brought the Peace Prize into disrepute!
Carter got his prize in 2002 as reward for conspicuous good works. But there again, the message of the Nobel committee was, Take the rough with the smooth. It was Carter, after all, who amped up the new cold war, got Argentinian torturers to train the Contras and above all dragged the United States into Afghanistan. It was in 1978 that a progressive secular government seized power in Afghanistan, decreeing universal education for women and banning child marriage. By early 1979 Carter was hatching plans with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China to arm mujahedeen and warlords in Afghanistan to overthrow the government and attempt to lure the Soviet Union into combat. In December 1979, after repeated requests from the government in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union sent forces to fight against the rebellion by the fundamentalists. The CIA launched the most expensive operation in its history to train and equip these fundamentalists and allied warlords.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee loves paradox, which is why I tend to believe that it toyed with the idea of giving Hitler the award in 1939, before the Führer’s sponsor withdrew the name. But it remained adamant about denying the prize to another nominee in 1939–Mahatma Gandhi–as it had done in 1937 and 1938, and would again in 1947 and 1948. When it came to the man Churchill described as a “half-naked fakir,” the committee lost the forgiving appreciation of realpolitik it had evinced in the cases of men like Roosevelt and Wilson and became inflexibly high-minded. Jacob Worm-Müller, a Norwegian history professor who wrote a briefing memo for the committee, remarked censoriously that Gandhi “is frequently a Christ, but then, suddenly, an ordinary politician.” Year after year the committee found reasons to reject him.
The chairman of this year’s committee, a ductile social democrat called Thorbjørn Jagland, was refreshingly frank about the selection of Obama. They could not, year after year, simply honor peace workers without marquee appeal. He didn’t mention it, but last year’s recipient, Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, drew a collective world yawn except among those fuming at his disgusting record as a broker in the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia. So they decided to shop for the headlines.
People marvel at the idiocy of these Nobel awards, but there’s method in the madness, since in the end they train people to accept without demur or protest absurdity as part and parcel of the human condition, which they should accept as representing the considered opinion of rational men. It’s a twist on the Alger myth, inspiring to youth: you too can get to murder Filipinos, or Palestinians, or Vietnamese, or Afghans and still win a Peace Prize. That’s the audacity of hope at full stretch.
So one shouldn’t take these prizes too seriously but simply cheer when a prize committee somewhere does the right thing. What do Paul Robeson, Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda all have in common? They won the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples, which was in business from 1950 to 1955. Then it became the International Lenin Prize, honoring many estimable toilers for human betterment, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Salvador Allende, Sean MacBride and Angela Davis. Read that list and you rapidly get a fix on the outer limits of the Nobel committee’s range of political sympathy. Obama’s award was a gift dispensed from the battlements of capital, recognizing that empire is in a safe pair of hands.