The Truth About Obama's Nobel Prize

Nobel Prize Committee Chair Thorbjørn Jagland is shamelessly seeking the spotlight.


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.

The leaders for all opposition parties, across the spectrum, criticized the decision. The Progress Party, Conservative Party, and Liberal Party felt it was a premature award. The leader for the Red Party was outright furious. Jagland is a member of the Labor Party, which currently controls the executive branch.

Other experienced reporters in Norway shares Helskog's view that this decision was Jagland's doing. When Wilhelm Steinfeldt from the publicly-owned Norwegian Broadcast Corporation pressed him during an interview Friday evening, Jagland said that everyone "eventually agreed" that this was the right thing to do.

The Committee has defended its decision by saying that Obama has opened up the international diplomatic scene after some "scary years", as Jagland puts it. Norway is heavily vested in the UN system and the whole political elite is happy to see U.S. participate more in UN processes.

His official English manuscript for the award says "Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play."

His Norwegian announcement used the word "should" instead of "can". This is a fairly significant change of wording, because it reflects the Norwegian ambitions for being an international powerbroker in humanitarian work. The national ambition is paired by classic public choice concerns.

The last three decades has changed Norwegian politics. Politicians used to retire back to the local community they came from. The 1968 generation gets promoted into jobs in international organizations. The job openings are fueled by public petroleum funds from the North Sea. Jagland's new job in the Council of Europe is just one of many examples.

The nomination deadline was February 1 this year. At that point Obama had been in office for just a matter of days. Although Jagland tries to hide the transparent populism behind this decision, there is no doubt that there are publicity motivations behind the prize. This was probably the reason behind the embarrassment Obama displayed in the White House Rose Garden on Friday.

Jagland defends the decision by saying the prize has been used to give momentum to existing political processes before. His two favorite examples are the prizes awarded Willy Brandt and Mikhail Gorbachev.

"One could say Obama opened up world politics the way Brand and Gorbachev opened up east block politics," Jagland said in a post-announcement video interview with Norway's largest newspaper VG.

But these examples do not stand up to scrutiny. Brandt's Ostpolitik was almost 8 years into the process of improving relations with the eastern block in when he got the award in 1971. Gorbachev had a five-year tenure under his belt as secretary general of the Politbureau when he was awarded the prize for his Glasnost and Perestroika policies in 1990.

The question everyone has been asking is what results Obama has produced to deserve the Peace Prize. According to Nobel's will, the award should be given to someone who has promoted peace and fraternity in the past year.

"Al Gore's prize last year had no immediate results, but we wanted to promote the attitudes he supported," said Jagland in a post-announcement interview with TV2

This speaks volumes toward a prize that is being politicized for personal and national purposes. And for the record, last year's award winner was Martti Ahtisaari. The security and media circus surrounding Al Gore's prize was in 2007. This is an interesting Freudian slip, when the world is trying to understand the motivation behind the Obama award.

I can see Jagland being ingenuous enough to think the Nobel Prize will help Obama bring Obama-style hope and change to the rest of the world. When the TV2 reporter asked him about a potential domestic backlash against Obama due to the award, Jagland was clueless.

"They should be proud of a leader that shows such a good stance to the world, and who promotes the will of the world community the way he has done," said Jagland.

It is not the first time he makes bad judgment calls in foreign policy. While he was Secretary of State in 2001, he called the president of Gabon "Bongo from Kongo" on national television. The Norwegian version of the Onion, Opplysningskontoret, ran a story stating the Nobel Prize was awarded to Bongo from Brooklyn. There were 100 versions of this joke on Twitter on Friday.

Obama's embarrassment was due to Jagland's desire to reinstate his public image as a statesman. The most telling sign is probably a comment Jagland made in one of his post-announcement interview.

"It was exciting to meet the world press," he said. "One of the most exciting things I have done."

Lene Johansen is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter. Her work can be found at http://www.lenejohansen.com.

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  1. "Yo, Obama, I'm real happy for you, and imma let you finish, but Michelle Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize!"

  2. Jagland, our very own Bush, is known for a couple of other quotes as well:
    "I haven't said this before, but I'll gladly repeat it.

    Three words - nothing wrong!

    I dont usually look so much backwards, and neither so much forwards either.

    Wages are like the period. It comes once a month, and lasts only a week."

  3. "Jagland is the new leader of the Committee," he [Gerhard Helskog] said. "And Jagland, how should I put this... is a grand thinker."

    "Grand Thinker" seems to be the newsspeak for "ass kisser."

    1. I interpreted it in the Grand thinker-outside-the-box way that led Time Magazine to start nominating things like the Spotted Owl for Person of the Year. And we all know where that led.

      1. What's 'Time Magazine', and what's this 'person of the year' thing you're talking about?

        1. You're quite right. Let us not speak of it again.

  4. Jagland is looking for a free coattails' ride, but it seems he misjudged which direction the owner is taking those coattails.

  5. "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 seem to been changing with recent membership choices."

    Recent. As in since last week recent? Why was nobody crowing about this before last week? (You know, as in the 100+ year span from 1905 to now.)


    1. People have been crowing about this since Kissinger and Arafat and Gore -- all white males -- won their awards.

      1. Kissinger and Arafat are white!?!?

        And Gore is a male???

        1. I would classify Killing...erh, Kissinger as white. No way on the question of status for the other two.

          1. If Gore is a male than MSNBC is full of shit.

  6. "They should be proud of a leader that shows such a good stance to the world, and who promotes the will of the world community the way he has done," said Jagland.

    Mr. Jagland can feel free to take President Obama and his promotion of the will of the world community back to Noreway and keep it. While he's at it he can shut the fuck up and just admit he strapped on the knee pads, crawled under the Resolute Desk, and made like Monica Lewinsky. I wonder if there is a bunad with a mess. (it doesn't have the same ring)

    1. Damn e ninja snuck into Norway.

  7. Report: Unsafe abortions kill 70,000 annually

    And in other news, unsafe executions kill 57,000 annually, while hundreds of thousands of steer die in unsafe slaughterhouses each year.

  8. Obama opened up world politics the way Brand and Gorbachev opened up east block politics,"

    Wow, I like to make fun of the Nobel process, but the level of synicism here is breathtaking. So, like Gorbachev, Obama is giving "socialism a human face"?

  9. "And Jagland, how should I put this? is a grand thinker."

    That's what the excuse is when you cheapen a hundred plus year old legacy that's been entrusted to you?

    In Norwegian "grand thinker" = "hack".

  10. I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than the committee's effrontery

    Apologies are owed Ambassador Egas Moniz, President of the Delegation of Portugal to the Paris Peace Conference , who won his Nobel fair and square,


  11. The Norwegian version of the Onion, Opplysningskontoret

    That is quite simply an awesome name.

    1. The question is whether you can pronounce it when you're drunk . . .or maybe, whether you must be drunk to pronounce it!

  12. Obviously the next Peace Prize should go to Thorbj?rn Jagland, for giving momentum to a set of causes.

    1. That would awesome

  13. Obama said "I do not feel I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures that have been honoured by this prize, that have inspired me and the entire world in their courageous pursuit of peace."

    There was no argument from any of the truly "transformative figures." Lech Walesa (who lit the cutting torch that Reagan used on the Iron Curtain) pointed out that Obama ". . .has no contribution so far."

    This award makes it official.

    It is now the "IgNobel Prize for PC" . . .

  14. Alt-text should have been: douche.

  15. At least 0's Grammy is for something he, uh, did...Hey, wait a second, did he win that award for reading something other than a teleprompter?

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  17. "Eastern block"? Really? I know it's just on the interwebs, but there's got to be somebody over at Reason who knows the difference between "block" and "bloc" and can take ten minutes to proof-read articles before they're posted.

  18. where do you go to get those "o" with a line through them?

  19. I fail to see the downside for the U.S.

    Any list containing the persons who have effected the most positive change in fraternity between nations in the past year would obviously include Obama. And all he had to do was be a normal decent human being and not a sadistic neocon who wants to crap all over the world just to prove we can. We should ask ourselves not what's wrong with Obama receiving the award, but what's wrong with the world that the standards are so low.

  20. Gawd! Leave it to Tony the moron. What a POS.

  21. Is there any way for me to find older articles I've commented on? I need to cite the article, but I can't find it.

  22. This just in: President Barack Obama has just won Miss Universe!

    1. Obama is more qualified to win Miss Universe, so I won't begrudge her that title. Also, I would gladly support Margaret Thatcher for Mr Universe, out of political fairness, even though she is more deserving of that title than Obama is of Miss Universe.

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  24. I had no idea how the Nobel Prize worked, or its history. Thank you for the informational article and for letting me learn something new today.

  25. Well, it isn't true that you have to be a known politician to receive Nobel recognition. I was a personal friend of Leo Hurwicz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics Theory in 1997 at Age 90.

    I'm not sure what took them so long. Leo was brilliant and well-deserving of the award.

    As for Obama's award? Maybe there was a little "glad handing" going on there but I have to believe that the criteria used to award the prize to him is no different than any other winner who has accomplished something so great.

  26. Oh, come on! what the truth is ?

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  30. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

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  35. Politics as always. It's very rare that any award goes to the most deserving. This seems like a political plot as well. And so the world turns...

  36. Good article, did not know all of the behind scenes stuff with the nobel prize.

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