On Oct. 6, the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced.
There’s always a chance that given the spiraling crises spanning countries and continents that there won’t be an award announced.
In fact, that’s happened 19 times since the first award in 1901. Most were war years, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee could see firsthand the wrenching results of failed diplomacy. But as recently as 1972, the committee found the field wanting.
Despite the growing global chaos, an award is still likely — although it seems unlikely that a head of state will win. A possible exception is Angela Merkel, but the German chancellor faces a contested election on Sept. 24, which could affect her chances to become a Nobel laureate despite her being the political (if not moral) force holding the West together.
Last year’s recipient reflected the contemporary challenge of honoring a current leader.
“For his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was lauded. But just days before the announcement, Colombians rejected a Santos-backed referendum on a peace pact between the Colombian government and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. (Colombian lawmakers eventually advanced a revised deal, and peace is apace in the country, prompting a papal pilgrimage this week from Pope Francis, a noble Nobel contender in his own right.)
Other leaders-turned-laureates could be considered premature, too. 2009’s recipient, Barack Obama, was just months into a presidency that soon saw a surge in Afghanistan and ubiquitous use of drone warfare.
And a leader propelled in part by the Peace Prize, 1991 laureate-turned-politician Aung San Suu Kyi, who won “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights,” is now marred as Myanmar persecutes a ferocious pogrom against the Muslim minority Rohingyas, prompting public rebukes from Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, two laureates upholding the honor and responsibility of their privileged position.
Among this year’s 318 Nobel Peace Prize nominees are 215 individuals and 103 institutions, including the Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets, intrepid rescuers of more than 95,000 Syrians imperiled by world leaders’ profound failure to end that country’s vicious civil strife.
“They’re a stunningly brave organization — they’re completely selfless,” said Dennis Ross, a former ambassador-level diplomat who is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They go in and they deal with what are the most horrific humanitarian catastrophes. Many of their own group have been killed because oftentimes they go in after a bombing and one of the tactics of the [Assad] regime has been to suck people in to rescue and then bomb people who come in rescue. The truth is Assad is a war criminal.”
The White Helmets or some other civil society group would be a worthy winner of this year’s Peace Prize. And their grass-roots, gritty work for peace seems to reflect the roll-up-your-sleeves sensibility of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Forum, which returns to the Augsburg University campus in Minneapolis on Sept. 15.
The theme is “bridging divisions through dialogue.” The forum will focus on “peace by design” in workshops and high-level dialogue sessions that Program Director Joe Underhill said are “really focused on action and engagement, which is ongoing for projects both locally and globally.”
Action and engagement from a civil society made Tunisia’s turn toward some semblance of democratic rule after autocracy possible and, despite setbacks, it remains one of the few flowers alive from the Arab Spring. Accordingly, a coalition of business, human rights, labor and legal leaders that made up the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was recognized by the Nobel Committee in 2015 “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011,” and three of the four members will keynote next week’s Nobel Peace Prize Forum.
To Underhill, an associate professor of political science at Augsburg, the Tunisian experience “was this great example of the sort of middle space that civil society provides where these very powerful organizations in that country were able to bridge these deep divides between the political parties, the old Ben Ali regime and the new Islamist parties that came to power after the first election.”
The Nobel Peace Prize Forum isn’t the only campus exploration of the complex components of peacemaking: The University of Minnesota’s Center for German and European Studies started a five-part lecture series on the successes, failures and future prospects of the peacemaking process in post-WWII Europe. “It’s a sharing of experiences with the idea that by the same token as war and violence are contagious so can peacemaking be as long as we acknowledge it, register it and analyze it,” said Catherine Guisan, a visiting associate political science professor behind the series.
Such events can help spread the contagion of peacemaking, no matter how arduous.
Realism is required.
“You know there are other ways to handle some of these tensions and crises,” said Underhill. “And certainly the kind of leadership we’re seeing from many capitals around the globe right now is not encouraging, and we think there are a lot of better alternatives out there.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.