Never Say Never: Trump and the Nobel Prize

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With South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Congressional Republicans calling for President Trump to receive the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, one must ask whether he is a realistic candidate. Like with all things Trump, it depends on whom you ask.

The case, as put forward by Congressional Republicans is that

Since taking office, President Trump has worked tirelessly to apply maximum pressure on North Korea to end its illicit weapons program and bring peace to the region,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “His administration successfully united the international community, including China, to impose one of the most successful international sanctions regimes in history. The sanctions have decimated the North Korean economy and have been largely credited for bringing North Korea to the negotiating table.

When a friend of mine posed just this scenario a few weeks ago, my initial response was that this would never come to pass. But after a more thorough exploration of the Nobel’s past practices, I concluded that one should never say never. I want to explain why if the Nobel committee agrees with the Republicans on the merits that Trump did in fact promote peace here, they may be likely to grant him the award.

First, should the Nobel decision-makers agree with the congressional Republicans’ assessment of the facts on the ground, it fits well with recent past practices to award President Trump, possibly along with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The Norwegian Academy, the peace prize awarding body, likes using the awards both to award past accomplishments, such as getting states to move toward peace, as well as for future-looking goals to “further stabilize the peace arrangement, encourage others to follow suit and pursue peaceful conflict resolution and promote a normative climate in which negotiated solutions are valued.”  The academy has selected several individuals involved in negotiating peace processes with at least 12 such awards since 1980.

In addition, the academy really likes heads of state. While the academy sometimes awards relative unknowns, as with Muhammad Yunees of the Grameen Bank, or organizations such as last year’s winner the International Campaign to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, presidents and other heads of states are often a popular choice for the Nobel Peace Prize. Of its 131 peace prize laureates, fifteen have been sitting heads of state or government with another five former and six future heads of state or government.

At first pass, I thought that regardless of whether Trump’s strategy does in fact promote a lasting peace, his aggressive strategy for getting parties to the table would not fit well with the Nobel’s peace mission. Alfred Nobel’s will says that the peace prize is to be given to the individual who has “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” But as Trump’s nominators explain, he used “maximum pressure” which included a great deal of saber rattling and personal invective. On the road to the recent historic summit, many feared that a nuclear strike was imminent.  But the Nobel has been given to others who have begun their path to peace with a hardline stance. For instance, 1978 winner Anwar Sadat started the 1973 war against Israel that “ultimately led to the peace drive that wound up in Camp David” and 1973 winner Henry Kissinger, who was awarded the prize for helping to end the Vietnam war, had engaged in such vicious warfighting that his award prompted Tom Lehrer to quip that satire had become obsolete.

Nor do I think Trump’s controversial approach to international relations more generally presents an insurmountable roadblock. As I wrote in a previous Verdict piece, many recipients had engaged in deeply problematic behavior: Yasser Arafat, who directed a string of bombings, plane hijackings and other attacks by his Palestine Liberation Organisation; Cordell Hull who pushed to exclude Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi Germany; or even well received F. W. DeKlerk who had seemingly willingly participated in the apartheid system, until he became president of South Africa. Particularly for heads of states, given the power they wield, the possibility of nasty skeletons or even well known bad behavior does not seem to deter the Nobel award winners. Thus, for example, even if the academy concludes that Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has sparked a conflagration between Israel and Iran or is likely to “ fuel[] an arms race in the Middle East and fan[] sectarian conflicts from Syria to Yemen,” they could view action in promoting peace on one front as decisive, regardless of whether a nominee retards or undermines peace on other fronts.

Nor does future bad behavior seem to weigh heavily on the Norwegian Academy. After Aung San Suu Kyi acted in direct contravention of the goals for which she received her Nobel, the Nobel showed no interest in revoking her award nor did it take any steps to facilitate revocations in case of backtracking by future winners.

That said, Donald Trump is meaningfully different than other controversial nominees or winners in at least one important respect. Some of his alleged misdoings reflect back on institutional credibility concerns for the Nobel. The academy has long fended off criticism for selecting individuals perceived to be unworthy of the peace prize or other honors. But I believe (and historians, feel free to correct me), Trump is unique at least in recent history for engaging in bad behavior that undermines the Nobel itself. First, there is the matter of the two forged applications. Trump has not yet been directly linked to the forged applications, but one can imagine that the committee might view violating its own application rules as a death penalty offense as do many other institutions (think Pete Rose and baseball).

More prominent, though, I suspect are the Nobel’s concerns about its legitimacy, as it is still mired in the throes of a #MeToo scandal.  In November of last year, several women accused Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of an academy member, of inappropriate touching and highlighted how he used his extensive connections with the academy along with academy apartments and academy events to access them. The allegations have prompted the academy to launch an internal investigation and to sever all ties to Arnault. In early April of this year, three members resigned over the academy’s unwillingness to take stronger steps. This likely prompted the academy to ultimately ask both its permanent secretary and another member to step down.

While the Swedish academy that chooses the prize for literature is distinct from the Norwegian body that chooses the peace prize, I suspect all Nobel decision-making bodies are greatly mindful of the serious authority problem they now face. This is particularly so as the Swedish Academy has just announced it will postpone the 2018 literature award out of fear that the prize decision would not be perceived as credible and the body wishes to “safeguard the long-term reputation of the Nobel.”  Should the Nobel Peace Prize body choose to award someone whose own statements and alleged behavior gave rise to the #MeToo movement, this could undermine its efforts to regain legitimacy.

But even as I continue to believe that Trump will not be awarded the Nobel, either because of a decision on the merits or larger institutional concerns, I no longer say never. Why? Well, in addition to the reasoning above, I have some humility in the face of the wisdom of crowds.  In early February 2018, Ladbrokes, a prominent British betting institution, placed Trump’s chances of winning the Nobel Prize at 500:1. It’s worth remembering that Trump defied staggering early odds to win the US presidency and he’s now running 2:1 on the Nobel Prize.

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Tags: Legal, Nobel Prize

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