Nobel Peace Prizes can seem too quick, even quixotic, when they’re awarded.
And in fact there’s often an aspirational aspect to the award, as there was last year, when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos received the honor just days after Colombian voters rejected a plebiscite on a peace deal he hammered out with rebel fighters.
Or in 1976, when Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were honored for their efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland, only to have “the troubles” continue for years.
Other relatively recent examples were in 1983, when the laureate was labor leader Lech Walesa, and in 1984, when it was Bishop Desmond Tutu, years before the yokes of communism and apartheid were lifted from Poles and South Africans.
Well before, four European envoys were recognized for “Franco-German reconciliation” in 1925 and 1926. And Woodrow Wilson and Leon Bourgeois won the prize as “campaigners for the League of Nations” in 1919 and 1920. That early-century idealism was incinerated in the cauldron of World War II.
And yet today, those Peace Prizes look respectable, if not prescient.
Peace is apace in Bogota and beyond as Colombian lawmakers approved a revived treaty. Northern Ireland has been relatively untroubled for years after the “Good Friday agreement,” which earned David Hume and John Trimble Nobels in 1998. Poland and South Africa are thriving, if messy, democracies. The United Nations (2001 laureate) has risen from the ashes of the League of Nations. And Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron’s electoral victories this year have revived hope that a revitalized Franco-German alliance can lead Europe through its serial crises.
So in that context, perhaps it’s not so surprising that on Friday the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the Geneva-based International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
In July, ICAN’s can-do approach at the U.N. convinced 122 countries to adopt the International Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (53 nations have signed it and so far three have ratified the pact).
None of the nine nuclear-armed nations (Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom and France) is a signatory, and all but one NATO nation, the Netherlands, boycotted the process.
And yet despite the seemingly audacious odds ICAN faces, the award “fits very squarely within the mandate and framework of the Nobel Peace Prize as outlined in the will of Alfred Nobel, given its emphasis on disarmament, peace conferences and promotion of fraternity among nations,” said Joseph Underhill, program director of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum that took place last month at Augsburg University.
And indeed, it’s the fifth time since the dawn of the nuclear age that the Nobel was awarded to individuals or institutions trying to end the darkness of proliferation.
Underhill, an Augsburg associate professor of political science, added that nuclear weapons are “seen as an ongoing concern,” but that the Nobel committee was clearly “signaling concern about the current risks of nuclear conflict given the level of tension and the rhetoric around the Korean Peninsula and the leadership in both the U.S. and North Korea.”
Adding to the tension and rhetoric is the debate regarding Iran.
But not because the theocracy is sprinting to develop a weapon. Rather, it’s because President Donald Trump reportedly will decertify the deal intended to prevent such proliferation.
“We are closer to nuclear war than at any time in decades,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which is dedicated to nonproliferation. “In Northeast Asia you have two inexperienced, impulsive leaders playing a game of nuclear chicken in the most heavily militarized area on earth. There are very real risks that this could go very wrong very quickly. And now the president wants to add to that by creating a crisis with Iran. Understand; there is nothing external driving this crisis. The Iranian nuclear program has been rolled back to a fraction of its size, frozen in place, and put into an iron box of inspections and monitoring.”
For these and other reasons Cirincione believes that this year’s Peace Prize is “a stunning and well-deserved victory; this is a small group with big dreams and big plans.”
Other groups started small, too, including the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which landed a 1997 Nobel, as well as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 2013’s laureate. While the record isn’t perfect — witness Bashar Assad’s heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria’s vicious conflict — for most major nations, land mines as well as chemical and biological weapons are now unthinkable.
“So you start to look again at some of these solutions that seem quixotic, that seem unachievable — eliminate nuclear weapons — and suddenly that seems like a better solution than trusting the existence of 15,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of a few leaders,” Cinincione concluded.
Sure, a nuclear-weapons ban isn’t imminent. But it’s not impossible, and now ICAN will have an amplified platform.
Underhill underscored that aspect by saying, “This is, in a way, as many of their awards have been, a highly idealistic or optimistic kind of perspective on this problem, but I think that’s part of the real value that the committee can play: in pointing us toward these really important goals that can often get lost in the welter of the violence-ridden headlines that we so often encounter.”
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.