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the Complete Review
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'The World's Most Prestigious Prize'

Geir Lundestad

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To purchase 'The World's Most Prestigious Prize'

Title: 'The World's Most Prestigious Prize'
Author: Geir Lundestad
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2015/17 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 190 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: 'The World's Most Prestigious Prize' - US
'The World's Most Prestigious Prize' - UK
'The World's Most Prestigious Prize' - Canada
  • Based on Lundestad's Fredens sekretær. 25 år med nobelprisen (2015) and Drømmen om fred på jord. Nobels fredspris fra 1901 til i dag (2017)
  • Translated by Siân Mackie

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Our Assessment:

B : fine overview of the Nobel Peace Prize

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Foreign Affairs . 9-10/2019 G.John Ikenberry

  From the Reviews:
  • "Lundestad makes an eloquent case that the prize has a universal appeal, grounded in humanitarian and nonviolent ideals on which no country or civilization holds a monopoly." - G.John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Geir Lundestad was director of the Nobel Peace Prize-awarding Norwegian Nobel Institute for twenty five years. Though his role was administrative, rather than part of the (who-gets-the-prize-)decision-making process, he was clearly privy to much of the process between 1990 and 2014, and he published two books about the prize in Norwegian, Fredens sekretær. 25 år med nobelprisen (2015) and Drømmen om fred på jord. Nobels fredspris fra 1901 til i dag (2017) (which apparently did not go over well with the Nobel committee). 'The World's Most Prestigious Prize', he explains in his Preface, "draws on both of these Norwegian volumes".
       'The World's Most Prestigious Prize' takes its title from The Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary History's description of the Nobel Peace Prize -- probably accurate enough, though Lundestad does seem a bit (too) hung up on the whole prestige/we're-number-one aspect of the prize.
       The book is essentially divided into two halves, the first an historical overview of the prize and the different phases it has gone through, while the second focuses on 'Ten Portraits, 1990-2012', with a more detailed look at ten of the awards from recent years.
       The overview -- first general, and then a bit more detailed, era by era -- is a useful one. As Lundestad notes, the Peace Prize differs from the other Nobels in being a Norwegian prize -- the others are selected by Swedish institutions -- and this has colored aspects of the prize over the years, including in the early ones, when Norwegian separatism (until 1905, it was part of the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway) influenced attitudes towards peace and national defense. This is a helpful and often overlooked perspective on the prize, cropping up in choices to the present time (including the 2012 award to the European Union -- an institution Norway has twice declined to join).
       As with each of the prizes, Lundestad acknowledges the Peace Prize has missed some obvious choices -- most notably, Gandhi. Interesting, too, is the centrality of peaceful action -- an explanation why Nelson Mandela did not (yet) receive the Nobel in 1984, when Desmond Tutu did:

Tutu had a clear policy of non-violence, whereas Mandela had been the leader of the ANC's armed branch from 1961 until he was arrested the following year. He was certainly no spokesman for anti-violence.
       Only in 1993, with the dismantling of the apartheid state, was Mandela considered a suitable winner (along with F.W. de Klerk, who was certainly no anti-violence standardbearer either).
       Lundestad notes that the idealistic -- arguably overly idealistic -- attitude the selection committee has often shown tends to serve the prize well -- correctly noting that: "It is when the Peace Prize has looked to realpolitik that problems have often arisen". Still, he notes the prize has remained fairly focused -- managing also a sly dig at another Nobel category (Literature) and their notorious selection, the most foolish in recent Nobel memory:
Some pop stars have a high profile within international politics (Bono, Bob Geldof, Sting). During the 2000s, several such names were actually considered, but the conclusion was nevertheless that these artists were better suited to receive Grammys than Nobel prizes.
       It is interesting to see that the Nobel Peace Prize has gone through several distinct phases -- not surprisingly marked by the interruptions and transitions of the great World Wars. It is fascinating to see how focused the peace movement before the First World War was on the idea of arbitration (as an alternative to war), and this is reflected also in many of the winners, the vasy majority of whom were firm believers in this alternative conflict resolution procedure. Meanwhile, from 1919 through 1939 the League of Nations was seen as the leading means towards peace -- with ten of the twenty-one prize awarded between the wars having a close connection to the League of Nations (and three further ones a weaker connection). After the Second World War, hopes lay with the United Nations -- with twenty-one of the ninety-one Peace Prizes awarded between 1945 and 2017 going to individuals and organizations connected with the UN.
       Human rights only came to the fore more recently, as the Peace Prize long focused on: "people and organizations working towards a better organized world", with Carl von Ossietzky the one pre-1945 exception. Since then, however, prizes: "awarded in praise of democracy and human rights and in protest against specific ideologies" became more common.
       The ten case-studies Lundestad offers are, unfortunately, all relatively recent, but do have the benefit of the personal touch, as these are from the period when he was involved with the prize, and so his knowledge and experiences are first-hand. Arguably, there are places where it is perhaps too personal ("goodness me, we were very excited about Gorbachev coming"). And while the personal perspective is, for the most part, welcome, it can occasionally come across as vindictive:
     Kåre Kristiansen was having issues in 1994. He sometimes forgot committee meetings. Sometimes he was also somewhat absent even when physically present.
       On the other hand, Lundestad's forthrightness often is welcome, as in acknowledging -- after expressing his great admiration for Jimmy Carter -- that: "Carter's Nobel lecture was not particularly inspiring".
       Lundestad only offers limited behind-the-scenes views of the actual decision-making -- in which, of course, he was not directly involved -- which is a shame. There are, however, some interesting titbits, including the reason why Jimmy Carter did not also share in the 1978 Peace Prize, with Begin and Sadat -- simply because no one had nominated him by the official deadline. Even though the committee asked the Nobel Foundation whether he could be added to the nominees, they insisted that rule were rules ..... Amusing, too, are details such as that Obama was not notified of his prize by the usual wake-up call from Oslo, the committee assuming: "he would manage the situation as best possible" -- presumably when he heard it on the news .....
        What he was privy to -- especially around the ceremonies themselves, dealing with the actual laureates -- is interesting enough, if veering occasionally towards the gossipy (Arafat and his entourage watching Tom and Jerry cartoons, etc.). More interesting are the international reactions to contentious selections -- including the so similar reactions of Nazi Germany to the selection of Carl von Ossietzky and then China's reaction to the 2010 award for Liu Xiaobo. Interesting, too, is his (correct) observation how most of the criticism against the awarding of the prize to Barack Obama in 2009 came from the United States (and specific circles in the US ...), while internationally it was much more positively judged.
       Lundestad does not shy away from the controversies -- and it's fascinating to see how controversial, for example, the selection of Mikhail Gorbachev was in 1990, with Yelena Bonner, widow of 1975 winner Andrei Sakharov, threatening to return her husband's prize (Lundestad unable to restrain himself from adding: "It was unclear whether she would have returned the prize money as well"). Still, a complicated case such as that of Aung San Suu Kyi -- undoubtedly a deserving winner in 1991, yet whose shameful inaction and silence on the treatment of Rohingya since have been widely criticized --, while mentioned, isn't discussed nearly as thoroughly as it might be.
       'The World's Most Prestigious Prize' is a fine, workmanlike introduction to and overview of the Nobel Peace Prize, offering some insight into its workings and nature -- notably, how significant the Norwegian composition of the committee that selects the laureates is -- as well as how it has changed across and with the times. As such, and as a somewhat surprising bonus, it also offers good insight into the changing nature of the peace movement(s) across the decades, and the different efforts to find and achieve forms of peace.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 November 2019

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'The World's Most Prestigious Prize': Nobel Peace Prize: Reviews:

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About the Author:

       Geir Lundestad was director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute from 1990 to 2014.

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© 2019 the complete review

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