If Alfred Nobel expected that the peace prize given out in his name every year would lead to world peace, it's safe to say that he'd be disappointed. Of course, that's far too high a standard, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to damp down extravagant expectations. But every year, the Nobel committee's choice is subject to extensive scrutiny, and not infrequently, controversy and second-guessing follow.
And for good reason: The Nobel Peace Prize's aims are expressly political. The Nobel committee seeks to change the world through the prize's very conferral, and, unlike its fellow prizes, the peace prize goes well beyond recognizing past accomplishments. As Francis Sejersted, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the 1990s, once proudly admitted, "The prize ... is not only for past achievement. ... The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account [because] ... Nobel wanted the prize to have political effects. Awarding a peace prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act."
It is therefore fair to ask whether the Nobel Peace Prize has changed the world. The committee has insisted that the award works in subtle but perceptible ways to advance the winners' causes: by raising the profile of organizations and problems, by morally and politically bolstering the forces for peaceful conflict resolution, by attracting international attention to repression, and perhaps ultimately by facilitating pressure for liberalization.
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But these claims have never been substantiated or, for that matter, carefully investigated. In fact, when one digs a little more deeply into the evidence, one discovers that often, as skeptics would expect, the prize has little impact on the awardees and their causes. Occasionally, but more rarely than its advocates hope, it draws attention to ignored problems. But more troublingly, the peace prize has often brought the heavy hand of the state down on dissidents and has impeded, rather than promoted, conflict-free liberalization.
These perverse consequences have become more prevalent as the prize committee's definition of "peace" has broadened since the U.S.-Soviet détente and especially since the end of the Cold War. The peace prize was first awarded in 1901, five years after Nobel's death. Nobel's will defined peace narrowly and focused on candidates' accomplishments: The prize was to be awarded "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Between 1901 and 1945, 33 of the 43 prizes went to those who promoted interstate peace and disarmament. Only once did the committee seek to effect change in a state's internal politics -- in 1935, when it honored Carl von Ossietzky, the journalist who served as a symbol of opposition to the Nazi regime.
Since World War II, however, the committee has strayed far from its original mandate. Between 1946 and 2008, only one quarter of the prizes (17 of 69) went to those promoting interstate peace and disarmament. An increasing number of awards (16 of 48 since 1971) sought to encourage ongoing peace processes -- in line with a traditional understanding of peace -- but they often intervened in processes that had born little fruit to date or still had a long road ahead. At the same time, the awards increasingly equated peace with overall human well-being.