Why the Peace Prize matters in Minnesota

  • Article by: MAUREEN K. REED
  • Updated: October 11, 2012 - 4:50 AM

There's a personal reason for Minnesotans to care.

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Nobel Peace Prize

Early Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee will announce this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner. Whoever it is, the choice is sure to generate controversy. After all, Peace Prize winners are not timid folks content with the status quo. They are people of action whose bold ideas blatantly challenge existing powers.

Predictably, the controversy will come in several flavors. Some will say the winner has not done enough to deserve the distinction. Others will complain that the decision by the Nobel Committee, appointed by the elected Norwegian Parliament, is politically motivated. A few will criticize the choice as not conforming to Alfred Nobel's will.

In our own back yard, whether the announcement is controversial will depend in large part upon how familiar we are with the winner. Announce Barack Obama, and almost everyone will have an opinion. Announce Tawakkol Karman, and almost everyone will say, "Who?"

And some will say, "Who cares?" That's a good question. Why should we in Minnesota care who wins the Nobel Peace Prize, or in fact, whether anyone wins it at all?

The answer is threefold. First, the Peace Prize has been a bellwether for distant issues highly likely to affect us in the future. Although we might not have known Karman when she was announced last year, this young "mother of the revolution" is the face of millions who are rising up against repressive regimes and demanding, to their personal peril, greater democracy. The Arab Spring, with its unevenness and unpredictability, has and will cause us to recalibrate our policy, trade and military decisions for the next many years.

This bellwether aspect also pertained in 2007. Regardless of what we thought then about Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, aid agencies and the U.S. military alike are now engaged in scenario planning related to the destabilization of populations triggered by climate change. Minnesota, as home to agribusinesses widely known (Land O'Lakes) or locally known (farm owner Bob Anderson of Redwood County), will be directly affected by the science and politics of this issue.

In addition to the bellwether phenomenon, the Nobel announcement predictably triggers a useful snapshot of differing views and values. The 2010 announcement of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was greeted positively, but not in China. The 1991 selection of Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi was greeted positively, but not in Burma. While the explanations behind these reactions are rather obvious, reactions to other winners are more complex. In a small world, it's fairly important to know who agrees -- or disagrees -- and why.

Finally, there's a more personal reason for Minnesotans to care who wins the Nobel Peace Prize. In times when we are fatigued by political diatribes, economic challenges and personal issues, it is uplifting to know there are people in the world who see something amiss, envision a different reality, and risk life and reputation to advance the ball. Through their ideas and their work, winners such as Norman Borlaug (the Green Revolution), Karman (political rights), and Muhammad Yunus (microcredit) have fundamentally altered our notion of what the human experience is and can be.

As the world's most exclusive club expands by one, it will be inspiring for the rest of us to contemplate just how much the world is changed by the actions of a few.

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Maureen K. Reed is the executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, which is hosted by Augsburg College in partnership with the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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