Most of the world, including President Barack Obama, woke up last Friday to quite a surprise. But the real story is that Thorbjørn Jagland, the new committee chair of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, wanted to start his tenure with a splash. He had promised insiders a winner that would gain international recognition.
TV2, the largest private broadcasting network in Norway, called the results during their evening news Thursday. I asked the reporter who had made the call, Gerhard Helskog, why he thought Obama would be the winner.
“Jagland is the new leader of the Committee,” he said. “And Jagland, how should I put this… is a grand thinker.”
But before we look more at Jagland, let’s look at the history of the Peace Prize. Alfred Nobel’s testament assigned the responsibility of the Peace Prize to the Norwegian parliament, which is called the Storting. When Nobel died in 1896, Norway was not yet independent, though there was local self-rule. Thus the Norwegians would be in charge of the Peace Prize because they would be able to keep the Prize untainted from national political concerns.
Norway gained independence in 1905 and gained control over its own foreign policy. The Storting selects the Nobel Committee, but the tradition is to select emeritus members of the political community that are no longer in active politics. This seems to been changing with recent membership choices.
Jagland retired after 16 years in the Storting this month. He served as the president of the assembly for the last four years. His tenure also included one year as the secretary of state under current Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, and nearly one year as an embattled prime minister himself during the late 90’s.
The members of the Council of Europe elected him to be the new general secretary of that organization earlier this month. Some legal experts suggested Jagland should resign from the Nobel Committee. Leading an international organization of 50 nations could lead critics to question the independence of the Nobel Committee, said Eivind Smith, law professor at the University of Oslo.
Friday’s award decision landed as a bombshell in Norway. The announcement brought a surprised gasp from the media that was crammed into the Nobel Institute building and Twitter exploded with acerbic comments from members of Storting, pundits, and reporters.
“Obama? Come on!,” was a comment from Torbjørn Røe Isaksen who is a member of the Storting. “Hu Jia was judged and came in short. He is in jail and is less glamorous of course.”
Most of the comments ridiculed Jagland and suggested the real motivation, his need to make a big splash and get access to an important man.
“The Nobel show needed a superstar this year. The prize went to the biggest star of them all. What great way to promote Norway!” said Kristine Meklenborg Salvesen. She is a research fellow at the University of Oslo and a former reporter.
Author Ida Jackson quipped that the Prize should be renamed “the-prize-you-get-if-you-are-a-politician-Jagland wants-to-dine-with.”
Anders Giæver , the New York City-based correspondent for the largest newspaper in Norway, said he was speechless, but happy that he did not take the bet that Gerhard Helskog had offered him the night before.
Experts commenting in national media were somewhat kinder, but floored by Jagland’s audacity.
“One wonders if the Nobel Committee wanted to achieve the status provided by giving the Prize to the sitting American president,” said Nils Buthenschøn, president of the Human Rights Institute.