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The False Promise of the Nobel
RONALD R. KREBS
Politicization is nothing new to the various Nobel prizes, the most
distinguished of international awards. This is true even to some extent of those
in the sciences, and it is obviously true of the award in literature. However, the
Peace Prize is the most politicized of the awards, and it, more directly than the
others, seeks to change the world through its very conferral. Recognizing those
who have already succeeded in changing the world—that is, the criterion of
accomplishment that guides the rest of the Nobel prizes—is secondary for
the Peace Prize, as the Nobel Committee reminded us in 2009 in bestowing
the award on President Barack Obama.
Many naturally doubt that any award could have much impact even at the
margins, let alone on enduring patterns, of international politics. Indeed, the
award was early in its history, and more occasionally since, given to pacifists,
and neither interstate nor intrastate conflict has been eliminated.
Committee itself has been careful to damp down extravagant expectations,
usually arguing that the award works in more-subtle ways to advance the win-
nersʼcauses: by raising the profile of organizations and problems, by morally
and politically bolstering the forces for peaceful conflict resolution, and by at-
tracting international attention to repression and perhaps ultimately facilitat-
ing pressure for liberalization.
Neither the skeptics nor the believers, however, are entirely correct. The
consequences of the Nobel Peace Prize for the winners and their causes vary:
sometimes, as skeptics expect, the Prize has little impact; occasionally, but
RONALD R. KREBS is associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. He is
most recently the author of Fighting for Rights: Military Service and the Politics of Citizenship and has
published on a wide range of topics in international relations in leading scholarly and popular outlets.
But conflict seems in general to be declining—though pacifists may not be able to take too much
credit. See the Human Security Report Project, accessed at www.hsrgroup.org, 12 October 2009.
Geir Lundestad, “Reflections on the Nobel Peace Prize,”December 1999, accessed at http://
nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/articles/lundestad/index.html, 8 July 2009.
Political Science Quarterly Volume 124 Number 4 2009–10 593
more rarely than its advocates hope, it draws attention to ignored problems;
but, sometimes, the award has also produced unexpected and unwanted
outcomes—undermining organizational competence and sparking repressive
state action. Such rarely recognized perverse consequences have become more
common in recent years, since the Soviet–U.S. détente and especially since
the end of the Cold War, as the Peace Prize has increasingly been given to
promote domestic liberalization. It is precisely in this prominent category of
cases that the good intentions of the Prize Committee have gone awry. In
the short-to-medium run, the Peace Prize has more often brought the heavy
hand of the state down on dissidents and has impeded, rather than promoted,
conflict-free liberalization. If the Nobel Committee wishes to foster peaceful
conflict resolution—a goal it has not been shy about endorsing—it should be
more cognizant of the awardʼs unintended consequences.
This article is heavily empirical, with clear normative implications, but it
also has relevance to theoretical debates that animate international relations
scholarship. Its argument and findings part ways with both a rigid realism as
well as conventional institutionalism, falling into and furthering the family of
approaches that, bridging between these two schools, has elsewhere been
termed “realist institutionalist.”
Whereas realists generally see international
institutions as epiphenomenal, as reflections of power politics,
claims, in line with institutionalist logic and findings, that the Nobel Peace
Prize, which might be seen as a kind of international institution, can have an
independent causal impact on state behavior.
However, whereas so-called
neoliberals focus on how international institutions promote cooperation,
article shows that the bestowal of the Prize can, contrary to neoliberal expec-
tations, exacerbate conflict and prompt intensified state repression, generating
dynamics and consequences that are the opposite of the Nobel Committeeʼs
purpose. The article thus also reflects realist proclivities: typical of the realistʼs
pessimistic worldview, it is skeptical that human efforts to effect progressive
change in global politics work in straightforward ways to yield such outcomes,
and it is sensitive to the possibility and reality of unintended consequences in
complex political systems.
As Lisa Martin and Beth Simmons argued over a
On “realist institutionalism,”see Ronald R. Krebs, “Perverse Institutionalism: NATO and the
Greco-Turkish Conflict,”International Organization 53 (Spring 1999): 343–377. See also Victor D.
Cha, “Abandonment, Entrapment and Neoclassical Realism in Asia: The U.S., Japan and Korea,”
International Studies Quarterly 44 (June 2000): 261–291.
John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions,”International Security
19 (Winter 1994): 5–49.
On this central axis of debate among IR theorists, see Robert Jervis, “Realism, Neoliberalism,
and Cooperation: Understanding the Debate,”International Security 24 (Summer 1999): 42–63.
For the seminal work, see Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the
World Political Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).
On pessimism and the realist worldview, see Robert Gilpin, “The Richness of the Realist Tradition,”
in Robert O. Keohane, ed., Neorealism and Its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986),
304. On unintended consequences and realism, see Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics
594 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
decade ago, the chief issue should no longer be whether international institu-
tions matter, but how they matter.
This article contends, in line with “realist
institutionalist”scholarship, that those institutions may “matter”by doing
harm as well as good. Exploring the impact of the Nobel Peace Prize on its
recipientsʼcauses is an important question in and of itself, but it also provides
a window onto these theoretical disputes.
The rest of this article proceeds in four substantive parts. First, I review
historical trends among the awardʼs winners, arguing that this inherently po-
liticized award has become increasingly “aspirational”and has applied an in-
creasingly broad definition of peace. Second, I explore three categories of
“aspirational”peace prizes and offer contending hypotheses regarding their
effects on the winnerʼs cause; in this section, I also develop the theoretical logic
of my argument about the awardʼs potentially perverse consequences. Third,
I examine and use computerized content analysis to cast doubt on the hypoth-
esis that the Nobel Peace Prize benefits causes by drawing global media atten-
tion to them. Fourth, I show that when the award is given to advance domestic
political change, it can have unexpected and counterproductive consequences;
this section traces the awardʼs surprising effects in three such cases since 1989.
PEACE PRIZE PATTERNS
The Peace Prize was first awarded in 1901, five years after Alfred Nobelʼs
death. In contrast to the broad definition of peace that came to inform the
award and the aspirational air that came to characterize its conferees, Nobelʼs
will defined peace narrowly and focused on candidatesʼaccomplishments; it
was to be awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best
work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing
armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
But the will
set the Peace Prize apart from the start with its inherently politicized character;
its winners would be identified by a committee appointed by NorwayʼsPar-
liament, whereas Swedish institutions defined by substantive expertise (the
Swedish Academy of Sciences, the distinguished Swedish medical school
known as the Caroline Institute, and Swedenʼs leading literary institute, the
Swedish Academy) had the responsibility for selecting the awardees in physics,
medicine, chemistry, and literature.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee initially remained true to Alfred Nobelʼs
charge. Of the 19 prizes awarded between 1901 and 1914, almost all went to in-
dividuals who had made major contributions to the Inter-Parliamentary Union,
(Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979), 73–77; and especially Robert Jervis, System Effects: Complex-
ity in Political and Social Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Lisa Martin and Beth Simmons, “Theories and Empirical Studies of International Institutions,”
International Organization 52 (Summer 1998): 742–743.
Accessed at http://nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/will/will-full.html, 8 July 2009.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |595
popular peace organizations, or the international legal tradition; Theodore
Roosevelt, as a sitting head of state and a realist to boot, was a notable excep-
tion, though his award, bestowed for his role in mediating the Russo-Japanese
War, was consistent with the Prizeʼs early focus on interstate peace (see Ap-
Between 1901 and 1945, over three-quarters of the prizes (33 of 43)
went to those who promoted interstate peace and disarmament: pacifists; in-
ternational lawyers, who saw law as the path to peace; leaders who played cru-
cial roles in the League of Nations. The rest of the awards went to individuals
and especially organizations dedicated to humanitarian causes or to statesmen
who sought to promote specific peace processes and resolve boundary dis-
putes. Only one award (1935) criticized and sought to effect change in a stateʼs
internal and repressive politics, as the Committee honored Carl von Ossietzky,
the journalist who served as a symbol of opposition to the Nazi regime.
Since the Second World War, however, the Peace Prize Committee has im-
plicitly adopted a definition of peace far removed from its original mandate.
Of the 21 prizes awarded between 1946 and 1970, just 6 (30 percent) went to
those promoting interstate peace and disarmament; that number declined be-
tween 1971 and 2009, to merely 12 of 49 prizes (24.5 percent). An increasing
number of awards (16 of 49 since 1971) sought to encourage ongoing peace
processes—in line with a traditional understanding of peace—but they often
intervened in processes that had borne little fruit or had a long road ahead,
from Vietnam to Korea to Indonesia to Northern Ireland to the Middle East.
At the same time, the awards increasingly equated peace with human well-being,
paralleling the contemporaneous stretching of “security”(marked as “other”
in the Appendix).
Thus the microlender Grameen Bank and its founder
Muhammad Yunus were acknowledged in 2006 for their pioneering work pro-
moting development. Thus Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Cli-
mate Change were honored in 2007 for raising awareness of the problem of
global warming. While one might construct plausible causal chains leading from
microcredit to development to peace, or from climate change to localized re-
source scarcity to conflict, the Peace Prize Committee rarely justified the awards
in these terms that would link it to a more traditional definition of peace.
Even more striking has been the Peace Prizeʼs growing focus since the Sec-
ond World War on domestic political arrangements. Between 1946 and 1970,
Geir Lundestad, “The Nobel Peace Prize,”in Agneta Wallin Levinovitz and Nils Ringertz,
eds., The Nobel Prize: The First 100 Years (London: Imperial College Press, 2001), 165–168; Burton
Feldman, The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige (New York: Arcade Pub-
lishing, 2000), 295–301.
Douglas Bulloch, “For Whom Nobel Tolls? An Interpretive Account of the Migration of the
Concept of Peace as Perceived Through the Solemn Eyes of Norwegian Lawmakers,”Millennium
36 (May 2008): 575–595; Lundestad, “Nobel Peace Prize,”184–185.
Roland Paris, “Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?”International Security 26 (Fall
596 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
the Prize was awarded twice (9.5 percent of the time) to domestic dissidents, to
encourage change in South African and U.S. internal politics (1960 and 1964
respectively). Between 1971 and 2009, the Prize was given 10 times (20.4 per-
cent) for this purpose. This has been slightly more true since the end of the
Cold War, as over 22 percent of the awards have gone to that end (see Appen-
dix). Here, the links to interstate conflict, and arguably to intrastate conflict
too, are even more tenuous. In recent years, the Peace Prize Committee has
cast opprobrium on, among others, Myanmar and Iran for their disregard of
individual liberties and democratic institutions. Aung San Suu Kyi and Shirin
Ebadi might be admired for their courage, but their awards do not recognize
substantial contributions to interstate or intrastate peace.
Finally, the awards have also become increasingly “aspirational”—con-
ferred on individuals and organizations that have made relatively little prog-
ress toward their stated goals.
The early years of the Peace Prize were similar
in this respect, as one might expect, given the heavy representation of pacifists
among the recipients; 80 percent of the awards given out before 1919 marked
aspiration more than accomplishment. But the balance shifted after the Second
World War, as nearly three-quarters of the awards during the Cold War (1946–
1988) honored recipientsʼtangible accomplishments. With the end of the Cold
War, the Committee again began to reward aspiration disproportionately, with
78 percent of the recipients so classified (see Appendix).
In a sense, of course, each of the prizes was bestowed for “accomplishment”: the prize-winners
have normally achieved positions of renown and prominence in their chosen arena. But individuals
may well enjoy prestige out of all proportion to their effortsʼconcrete effects. Thus, I distinguish
between awards that have honored individuals whose past actions have led relatively directly to tan-
gible easing of human suffering or the cessation of violence (“accomplishment”) and those awards
that have honored individuals whose causes, at the time of the award, remain far from having been
achieved (“aspiration”). I have drawn on the official Nobel Peace Prize Committee announcement to
identify the reasons the award was bestowed. The former category (“accomplishment”) includes the
negotiators of completed peace agreements (for example, 1906, 1973, 2008), humanitarian organiza-
tions (for example, 1944, 1954, 1999), scientists and financiers whose initiatives have advanced global
well-being or human security (for example, 1962, 1970, 2006), and others. The latter category (“as-
piration”) includes peace activists, nuclear disarmament advocates, and environmentalists—whose
causes, while arguably admirable, had inarguably made little headway at the time of the award—
but also key figures in ongoing conflicts (for example, 1993, 1998, 2000) and human rights and de-
mocracy activists in authoritarian regimes (for example, 1984, 1989, 2003), among others. There are,
of course, cases that are difficult to classify, such as prizes given to honor individuals for their role in
founding organizations like the League of Nations and the United Nations. When these prizes were
given at the outset of the organizationsʼexistence, and not after many years of operation, I coded
them as “aspirational”; at the time of the award, the organization had not yet demonstrated its value
or staying power. These cases stand in contrast to the many awards given to humanitarian organiza-
tions and human rights groups after decades of consistent operation and concrete achievement.
While one might challenge individual codings, the trend line is unmistakable and robust. This is,
moreover, not a controversial claim. See similarly, Lundestad, “Nobel Peace Prize”; Feldman, Nobel
Prize, chap. 8.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |597
The more aspirational the Prize, the more clearly the Committee has tried to
use it for political effect. Francis Sejersted, the chairman of the Norwegian
Nobel Committee in the 1990s, was open about this: “The Prize …is not only
for past achievement…. The Committee also takes the possible positive effects
of its choices into account [because] …Nobel wanted the Prize to have political
effects. Awarding a Peace Prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act.”
cite many examples from the awardʼs history, but the Committee has been par-
ticularly explicit since 2001 about its political message. That year, as the United
States geared up to invade Afghanistan and amidst early talk of U.S. action
against Iraq—all outside the aegis of the United Nations (UN)—the Committee
conferred the award jointly on the UN and its Secretary General, Kofi Annan,
“to proclaim that the only negotiable route to global peace and cooperation
goes by way of the United Nations.”
The following year, in bestowing the Prize
on former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the Committee could hardly have been
more clear: “In a situation currently marked by threats of the use of power,
Carter has stood by the principles that conflicts must as far as possible be re-
solved through mediation and international cooperation based on international
law, respect for human rights, and economic development.”
In 2003, the Com-
mittee, honoring the Iranian feminist and reformer Shirin Ebadi, pointedly noted
that “at a time when Islam is being demonized in many quarters of the western
world, it was the Norwegian Nobel Committeeʼs wish to underline how impor-
tant and how valuable it is to foster dialogue between peoples and between civ-
The New York Times observed that the Prize sent “a message to the
[George W.] Bush administration that internal change, brought about by local
advocates, is preferable to invasion.”
The Nobel Committeeʼsmostrecent
award, in 2009, to President Obama, was immediately widely interpreted on both
the left and the right as a censure of the style and substance of the previous ad-
ministrationʼs foreign policy and as an embrace of Obamaʼs less confrontational
approach and more multilateral inclinations.
APRIZE PACKING A PUNCH?
If the Nobel Peace Prize is intended to have political effects, one should in-
quire: what kinds of effects might it produce? Through what causal mecha-
Francis Sejersted, “The Nobel Peace Prize: From Peace Negotiations to Human Rights,”ac-
cessed at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/articles/sejersted/index.html, 8 July 2009.
Press Release, 12 October 2001, accessed at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/
2001/press.html, 8 July 2009.
Press Release, 11 October 2002, accessed at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/
2002/press.html, 8 July 2009.
Presentation Speech, 10 December 2003, accessed at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/
laureates/2003/presentation-speech.html, 8 July 2009.
Ethan Bronner, “The Nobel Peace Prize Always Comes With a Message. But is it Heard?”The
New York Times, 17 October 2003.
598 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
nisms? And does it actually produce the desired effects? Naturally the Prize
has not directly brought about international peace, and even the Prizeʼs advo-
cates do not make so extravagant a claim. When the Peace Prize is given to
individuals or organizations for past accomplishment, the Prizeʼs effects on
future performance are particularly difficult to gauge. Then the recipient nor-
mally has a well-established track record and funding base, and further suc-
cesses cannot be attributed persuasively to the award. Alternatively, the
individual is hailed for her role in facilitating or negotiating a relatively stable
peace, and the Prize Committee thereby hopes to further stabilize the peace
arrangement, encourage others to follow suit and pursue peaceful conflict res-
olution, and promote a normative climate in which negotiated solutions are
valued. That the Prize furthers the first of these aims cannot be demonstrated,
because continued peace can be ascribed to the conditions that gave rise to the
settlement, and the Prizeʼs contributions to the other two goals are necessarily
highly indirect, if not elusive.
When the Peace Prize is given to individuals and organizations whose ac-
complishments are not substantial but whose aspirations are great, its effects—
if there are any—might be more easily ascertained. Here the Prizeʼs advocates
plausibly suggest that the Prize helps set the international agenda, draws atten-
tion to forgotten or marginalized causes, and thereby imparts a new impetus to
stalled efforts. Geir Lundestad, the distinguished historian who has served as
Secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, observes that “many are the
Peace Prize Laureates who have reported how previously closed doors were
suddenly opened to them after they had received the Prize.”
specific cases have attributed precisely such an impact to the Prize. Students
of the Tibetan struggle have claimed that the Dalai Lamaʼs Prize was “a tre-
mendous blow to the Chinese governmentʼs pride”that gave the Tibet issue
greater international exposure, inspired Tibetan activism, and further isolated
China; the award, they suggest, opened the White Houseʼs door to the Dalai
Lama in April 1991 and led the U.S. Congress to recognize Tibet as an occu-
This was, moreover, explicitly the hope of Czech President
Vaclav Havel in nominating the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aspirational Peace Prizes have, in the last four decades, been given pri-
marily in three circumstances. Of the 28 awards between 1971 and 2009 coded
as aspirational in the Appendix, 6 honored contributions to general peace
and disarmament, 9 aimed to advance incipient peace processes in specific
Pierre-Antoine Donnet, Tibet: Survival in Question, trans. Tica Broch (London: Zed Books,
1994), 202–203; Warren W. Smith, Jr., Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-
Tibetan Relations (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), 622. See also A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making
of Modern Tibet (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), 236.
“Burma Hits at Nobel Prize Winner,”Agence France Presse, 15 October 1991.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |599
intrastate and interstate conflicts, and 9 sought to promote domestic change
in favor of human rights and democracy. I analyze each category in turn.
First, the Nobel Committee has tried to promote disarmament by bestow-
ing the award on individuals and organizations who have made arms control,
and ultimately the banning of classes of weapons, their lifeʼs work. In many
such cases, the award has done little to advance public awareness, which is al-
ready substantial. That the nuclear arms race posed a threat to humanity was
hardly news in 1982, when the Committee honored Alva Myrdal and Alfonso
García Robles for their work in both regional and global nuclear disarmament
negotiations. That nuclear proliferation remained of concern was hardly a rev-
elation in 2005, when the Committee honored Mohammed El Baradei and
the International Atomic Energy Agency; seven years before, both India and
Pakistan had made their nuclear weapons capabilities clear, and just two years
earlier, the world discovered that Pakistanʼs chief nuclear engineer, Abdul
Qadeer Khan, had been running a global nuclear technology and weapons
bazaar. In cases involving less-well-known classes of weapons, the Peace Prize
might conceivably play an agenda-setting function, and the International Cam-
paign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), winner of the 1997 award, is a case in point.
Yet the Prize proved a mixed blessing for the Campaign. On the one hand,
funding for “mine action”—mine clearance, mine risk education, and mine
survivor assistance—saw a massive jump in 1998, followed by two more years
of double-digit percentage increases; whereas global spending had averaged
merely $64.75 million per year between 1992 and 1995, it reached $189 million
in 1998 and $309 million in 2002.
Yet, while the Nobel Committee might
plausibly claim credit for drawing resources to the Campaign, the Prize also
sparked divisive in-fighting over the sudden prominence of coordinator Jody
Williams and over how to spend the Prize funds.
The unusual case of the
ICBL aside, these awards cannot in general be expected to exert much impact.
Second, the Nobel Committee has sought to advance ongoing peace pro-
cesses, bestowing the award on the principals either before real progress had
been made (Kim Dae Jung and his “sunshine policy,”2000, for example) or
immediately after agreements were signed but with much still to do (Oscar
Arias Sánchez and the Esquipulas Accord, 1987, for example). The Committee
has often been self-conscious and even defensive about these awards, for in-
stance acknowledging in 1994, when it honored the Palestinian leader Yasir
Arafat, Israelʼs Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Israelʼs Foreign Minister
Shimon Peres for the Oslo Accords, that “it has been said that the Nobel
Committee ought to have waited.”But the Committee justified the award by
For data, see Landmine Monitor Report 2003, accessed at www.icbl.org/lm/2003/funding.html,
16 March 2009.
“Antimine Activists at War with Each Other,”Globe and Mail, 10 February 1998; Caryle Murphy,
“The Nobel Prize Fight: Claims of Jealousy and Betrayal,”The Washington Post, 22 March 1998.
600 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
affirming its capacity to spur further progress toward Mideast peace: “It is the
Committeeʼs hope that the award will serve as an encouragement to all the
Israelis and Palestinians who are endeavoring to establish a lasting peace in
If the Prize draws worldwide attention and resources to the conflict, then
the Committeeʼs ambition may not be misplaced. But, even if the Committee is
right, these seemingly positive developments can also call forth “spoilers”who
may undermine fragile processes.
The Nobel Committeeʼs presumption is
that transparency strengthens peace processes, and that is true in the long
run, as mass publics on both sides must support any negotiated agreement.
But that may not be true in the short run, when processes are brittle and when
trust is scarce. In those early stages, secrecy may be an advantage. Indeed, had
Israeli and Palestinian leaders tried to negotiate the Oslo Accords in the
publicʼs full glare, the Accords might never have been signed, as spoilers like
Hamas would have arisen even earlier; it is not accidental that the early stages,
completed in secret, were successful, while the subsequent, more-public nego-
tiations have been more troubled. The third option is the null hypothesis—
that the Prize has no impact on ongoing peace processes, either for ill, because
active peace processes have already moved spoilers, wherever such actors
are present, to action, or for good, because the Prizeʼs agenda-setting function
Third, the Nobel Committee has increasingly sought, through its awards, to
highlight political repression and human rights violations, in the hope that the
brighter media light will lead authoritarian governments to behave better and
even take painful steps toward democracy. This goal motivated the Committee
to honor activist luminaries such as Andrei Sakharov, Desmond Tutu, the
Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi. But the Nobel Committee thereby has
implicitly presumed that regimes from the Leonid Brezhnev-era USSR to
apartheid-era South Africa to Deng Xiaopingʼs Peopleʼs Republic of China
(PRC) to junta-ruled Myanmar are so sensitive to their international reputations
as “good”or “responsible”states that they would sacrifice their most-cherished
values to maintain or cultivate their reputations. This is possible, but implau-
sible. The more-likely alternative is that while the prize winners themselves,
given their prominence, might be relatively spared, regimes will clamp down
harshly on local dissidents to demonstrate their resolve and to prevent local
and international activists from taking heart. To the extent that the Nobel
Prize is successful in drawing worldwide attention to their plight, it may render
an insecure regime even more anxious and thus more brutal and dangerous;
regimes desperate to hold on to power are more sensitive to threats to their
Peace Prize Press Release, 14 October 1994, accessed at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/
peace/laureates/1994/press.html, 8 July 2009.
On “spoilers,”see Stephen John Stedman, “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes,”International
Security 22 (Fall 1997): 5–53.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |601
rule than to the good opinion of the international community. Moreover, inso-
far as local activists believe that the Nobel Peace Prize confers moral authority,
that the world has thereby given its imprimatur to their cause, and that the
international community has thereby signaled that it will protect them, they may
ramp up their demands or at least intensify their protest activities—intensifying
the regimeʼs fears of encirclement and its sense of vulnerability, boosting the
regimeʼs desperation, and calling forth still greater repression. Ironically, if
the Nobel Committeeʼs aspirations are fulfilled—if the Prize emboldens local
actors, if it boosts global media coverage of regime repression, and if it pres-
sures authoritarian regimes—it may produce effects precisely the opposite of
those it intends, with moral victories substituting for actual ones. This article
contends that this tragic chain of events, in which the Nobel Committeeʼs noble
intentions at least temporarily set back the cause of democracy and human
rights, is not only plausible, but relatively common in this important subset
of cases. In fact, Sejersted, the Nobel Committee chairman, has acknowledged
that “in some cases the prize has in fact provoked conflict in the short term.”
His admission is revealing, but it may understate the awardʼs human cost.
The experience of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement is an analogous cau-
tionary tale. Many have hailed the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision
in Brown v. Board of Education with increasing media coverage and public
awareness of racism, inspiring the Civil Rights Movement, and driving a deci-
sive nail into the coffin of segregation. But Gerald Rosenberg has persuasively
argued that court decisions on civil rights, notably Brown, had little sustained
impact on the press or mass and elite opinion. Brown not only produced little,
if any, positive change, but “there is some evidence that it hardened resistance
to civil rights among both [Southern] elites and the white public…. By stiffen-
ing resistance and raising fears before the activist phase of the civil rights
movement was in place, Brown may actually have delayed the achievement of
Brown mobilized opponents of civil rights more than it boosted
the capacity of its defenders. The same may be true of the Nobel Peace Prize,
as (an exaggerated) fear of its political consequences drives states to act with-
out offering sufficient compensating advantages.
Realists, skeptical of the Nobel Committeeʼs optimism, would view this
more-pessimistic argument as equally misguided; they would argue that the
award itself has little impact on regime behavior, for good or ill. But, even
though (as I show below) the Peace Prize has typically had little impact on
media coverage except in the short term, state leaders have taken the Prize
seriously—contrary to realist expectations. Whether the Prize actually sets the
international agenda, authoritarian leaders often act as if it does; they fear that
it draws attention to, raises the prominence of, and boosts the moral authority
Sejersted, “Nobel Peace Prize.”
Gerald N. Rosenberg, The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? (Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press, 1991), 155–156.
602 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
of dissidents. And they have consequently sought to undermine dissidentsʼcan-
didacies. When the Soviet government learned in 1973 that the well-known
physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov had been nominated and
that an international campaign had taken shape to promote his candidacy, it
ordered the KGB (the Soviet secret police) to launch a futile action to prevent
him from being named; a month after the award was announced, the KGB
authorized an extensive covert campaign of character assassination against
Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner. Three years later, after the show trial
of a less-prominent dissident physicist who had founded the Moscow Helsinki
Watch Group, Yuri Orlov, “the KGBʼs main fear”was that Orlov would win
the Prize, and the KGB gave “the highest priority to an active measures cam-
paign, personally overseen by [KGB head Yuri] Andropov himself, designed to
discredit Orlov and ensure that his candidacy failed.”
Similarly, the Guatemalan
government “furiously lobbied the world to prevent Rigoberta Menchú from
getting the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize—even submitting the name of a ruling-
class philanthropist (unknown outside of Guatemala City) as an alternative.”
Realists would expect regimes to ignore the award or at most to pooh-pooh
it as international do-gooder blather or a reflection of power politics. Yet re-
gimes have reacted as if the award mattered. They have responded with anger,
not indifferent laughter. They have responded with organized campaigns to
delegitimize the award and the recipient, not mild derision. The nature and mag-
nitude of their response have been at odds with realist expectations. When the
Dalai Lama won in 1989 in a clear rebuke to China after the Tiananmen crack-
down, the PRC did not slough it off: the Foreign Ministry expressed “indigna-
tion”at the Nobel Committee for its “open support to the Dalai Lama and the
Tibetan separatists in their activities to undermine the national unity and split
China”and for this “gross interference in Chinaʼs internal affairs.”
Iranian conservatives pay little heed after the liberal-minded activist Shirin
Ebadi won the award in 2003. A leading conservative newspaper pointedly
editorialized that “the goal of this prize is to embarrass Muslims and, especially,
the Iranian people.”
That regimes take the Nobel Peace Prize so seriously, and
view it (wrongly) as so dangerous to their hold on power, strikes a blow at the
realist view and adds to the pessimistic hypothesisʼsurface plausibility.
Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and
the Secret History of the KGB (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 322–324, 329–330.
Susanne Jonas, Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemalaʼs Peace Process (Boulder, CO: Westview,
“China Deplores Peace Award to Dalai Lama,”The New York Times, 8 October 1989.
The official Iranian reaction was muted, as a reformer, Mohammad Khatami, was president. But
influential conservatives, in the press and the religious establishment, condemned the award as a
“disgrace.”See Bronner, “Nobel Peace Prize”; Robin Gedye, “Some Iranian Clerics, Catholics Object
to Winner,”Daily Telegraph, 11 October 2003; Associated Press, “Gathering Storm Over Iranianʼs
Peace Prize,”Mercury, 13 October 2003.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |603
Journalists, scholars, and activists often credit the Nobel Peace Prize with at-
tracting media attention to stalled peace processes and deplorable human
rights situations, generating pressure for change. If the Peace Prize has a pos-
itive effect, this is its most likely route. But these observations are based on
impressionistic evidence. If this claim has validity, one would expect to see sys-
tematically greater coverage of the recipient and of the recipientʼs conflict/
cause in the global media—because the Prize had made reporters, editors,
and publishers newly aware of a long-ignored problem; because the Prize
had boosted the publicʼs demand for information on the problem or conflict,
to which newspapers and other media were responding; or because the Prize
had prompted state leaders or international organizations to take the problem
more seriously, and the media subsequently covered their interventions. Re-
gardless of the mechanism, the expectation is that the organization, individual,
or cause would receive increased coverage in mainstream, prominent global
media outlets and that such coverage would persist for some substantial period
beyond the awardʼs announcement.
With the proliferation of electronic media, one can easily test this proposi-
tion. One might examine all “aspirational”cases since 1971, but that would stack
the decks against the Prizeʼs impact; some cases were already the subject of
media scrutiny, and the media might have been saturated before the award.
Therefore, I focus on cases of “less well-known Laureates and their causes”—
that is, cases in which Prize advocates expect the Prize to have a substantial
impact on media coverage.
These should be “easy”or “most likely”cases
for the media impact hypothesis. If the effect is small or non-existent in even
these cases, one might conclude that the Prize does not have the effect often
ascribed to it. The ready availability of data since the late 1980s warrants start-
ing the analysis then. It is also justifiable on methodological grounds to focus
on awards since 1989; one might expect that superpower concerns would
dominate media coverage during the Cold War, reducing the Prizeʼs impact,
and thus post-1989 cases are also “most likely”for the media impact hy-
pothesis. These criteria—after 1989, aspirational, not already the subject of
broad media coverage—leave eight cases (and 10 Nobel Laureates) worthy
These eight cases, however, reveal little evidence that the Nobel Peace
Prize consistently boosts international media coverage beyond the short run.
The analysis therefore includes two cases that Lundestad (“Reflections”) specifically says the
Prize moved higher on the international agenda: Myanmar and East Timor. The excluded post-
1989 aspirational cases are South Africaʼs transition from apartheid (1993), the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict (1994), the troubles in Northern Ireland (1998), the conflict on the Korean peninsula
(2000), the United Nations (2001), nuclear disarmament (2005), and President Barack Obama (2009).
604 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
Moreover, in those cases in which global media sources do devote more re-
sources after the award, it appears to be for the reasons that pessimists, not
Prize advocates, would expect. Figure 1 displays the number of times the Dalai
Lamaʼs name appeared in headlines in the LexisNexis database of “major
world newspapers”between October 1988 and December 1990. The an-
nouncement of the award in October 1989 produced a large spike in articles
focused on the Dalai Lama and a smaller spike in December when the presen-
tation ceremony was held. Excluding the three months of October–December
1989, the Dalai Lama received somewhat higher overall coverage in the
12 months beginning in January 1990 (38 articles) than in the year that pre-
ceded the award (27 articles), but the pattern was not consistent with the
conventional wisdom, which would have expected the Prize to have initiated
dependably higher coverage of the Dalai Lama in the months immediately af-
ter the award. In fact, as Figure 2 indicates, media coverage picked up only in
the spring and summer of 1990 as a product of a Chinese crackdown—in line
with the pessimistic hypothesis. Coverage of Tibet in general was in fact higher
before the award, thanks to intensified government repression in March 1989:
there were 142 articles with Tibet in the headline between October 1988 and
September 1989, and 63 articles in 1990. In short, the Nobel Committeeʼs
hope—that the Prize would bring greater worldwide media attention to Tibet
in particular (and perhaps to Chinese human rights abuses more generally)—
is not supported by the data.
In contrast, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Burmese opposition leader
Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 does appear to have led to greater worldwide media
Coverage of Dalai Lama
Major World Newspapers
Source: LexisNexis Academic.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |605
attention to her country. This is not readily apparent from Figure 3, which was
calculated using the same method as above for Myanmar/Burma. However, in
the three years preceding the award, global media coverage averaged 13 ar-
ticles per month; in the three years after the award, beginning January 1992,
global media coverage averaged 17.61 articles per month. The disparity is even
greater in the year immediately before and immediately after the award—
8.83 versus 17.33 articles. These differences are reproduced, or are even greater,
when one calculates median, as opposed to mean, monthly coverage. How-
ever, Prize advocates should not take heart: as I discuss in greater detail below,
in the Prizeʼs wake, the ruling junta showed even less tolerance than usual for
political dissent, and increased media attention failed to moderate the regimeʼs
The Myanmar case was less typical, however, than that of Tibet. I cannot,
due to space constraints, present all the other cases in equivalent detail. But
the results follow the same pattern. Neither Rigoberta Menchú nor the
Guatemalan Civil War (1992) received substantially greater sustained cover-
age after the award.
The plight of East Timor (1996) was covered with
Coverage of Tibet
Major World Newspapers
Source: LexisNexis Academic.
This conclusion, based on systematic examination of global media, runs counter to accounts that
credit the award with drawing international attention to the stalled peace negotiations and govern-
ment abuses in Guatemala. See Kay B. Warren, Indigenous Movements and their Critics: Pan-Maya
Activism in Guatemala (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 53; Daniel Wilkinson, Silence
on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala (Durham, NC: Duke Univer-
sity Press, 2004), 30.
606 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
equal intensity (or lack thereof) in the year before the award and in the year
after: respectively, 11 articles per month versus around 10 articles per month.
The impressive coverage during the award period (October–December 1996)—
27 articles per month—waned quickly. The following year (1997) the Com-
mittee sought to draw attention to the cause of the International Campaign
to Ban Landmines, but the effects were either small or nonexistent. By one
measure (references to “landmines”in the text of articles in major world news-
papers), there were substantially more references in the year before the award
(238.1 per month) than in the year after (172.1). By another measure (refer-
ences to “landmine”in headlines alone), the later period saw a slight increase
over the earlier (14.1 vs. 12.5 articles per month). Not only is this difference
small in absolute terms, but it shrinks to insignificance when one takes into ac-
count long-term agenda-setting trends: the landmines issue had been steadily
gaining coverage—with monthly averages rising from 6 to 8.92 to 12.5 articles
in the three years preceding the award.
In 2003 and 2004, the Nobel Committee honored two individuals with ex-
tremely low world press profiles, and the award unquestionably helped them,
as individuals, gain attention from the media. Shirin Ebadi appeared in the
headline and lead paragraphs of merely three articles of major world news-
papers in the three years preceding her award, but nearly 400 times in the
three years thereafter. For Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and
political figure, the corresponding figures are 8 and 216. But whether their
causes profited is less clear. Maathai was associated with sustainable develop-
ment and especially deforestation, causes whose profile rose along with the
global environmentalist movement. Global media had thus devoted increasing
Coverage of Myanmar/Burma
Major World Newspapers
Source: LexisNexis Academic.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |607
attention to problems of deforestation, but there was no marked increase in
the wake of her award. Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change were honored in 2007 for raising public awareness of global warming.
While media coverage of climate change, and specifically rising global tem-
peratures, rose after 2007, one cannot with confidence credit the Peace Prize;
media attention to climate change had been steadily rising for years. As a lead-
ing liberal voice in Iran, Ebadi is linked to political and social reform agendas
as well as human rights. Figure 4 demonstrates clearly, based on references to
Iran and reform in the headlines and lead paragraphs of major world news-
papers between 1997 and 2007, that Ebadiʼs increased personal prominence
did not translate into systematically greater coverage of the impediments to,
demand for, or prospects for reform in Iran.
In conclusion, with the possible exception of Myanmar (1991), the Nobel
Peace Prize cannot be credited with drawing global media attention to recipi-
entsʼcauses. When recipients are largely unknown, the award can be a personal
boon, but such cases are rare. Moreover, even in these instances, there is little
evidence that the award redounds to the benefit of their causes, which the Nobel
Committee wishes to further. So much for the Prize advocatesʼhopes.
The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize does, however, appear to have an im-
pact in certain circumstances more in line with the previously articulated ex-
pectations of pessimists. Of the nine aspirational cases since 1971 aiming at
domestic change (see Appendix), six produced the opposite effect of that
desired; the other three seem to have had no effect; and in no case does the
Coverage of Iran and Reform
Major World Newspapers
Source: LexisNexis Academic.
608 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
Prize appear to have played a substantial role in bringing about the changes
favored and envisioned by the Nobel Committee. The Committee has the best
of intentions in promoting responsive regimes and the protection of human
rights, but the consequences can be perverse.
Space constraints preclude adequate tracing of all these stories, and thus
I focus on the post-Cold War cases, in which one might have expected the
warming international environment to be most conducive to effective interna-
tional pressure—that is, a best-case scenario for the Peace Prize. Few, for in-
stance, would be surprised to learn that the award to Sakharov in 1975 sparked
a vigorous crackdown by the authorities on Soviet dissidents; the Prize helped
temporarily protect Sakharov himself, but even he would eventually be exiled
to Gorky after his outspoken opposition to the war in Afghanistan.
five such cases since 1989, three produced unexpected negative effects, de-
scribed below. The other two are exceptional. The 1993 award, bestowed on
Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, did not have disruptive effects because,
while it sought to encourage democratic change, that change was already well
underway, and it was transpiring, after years of confrontation, through a nego-
tiated solution. But this was a singular case: in contrast to nearly all other do-
mestic change cases, in which the Peace Prize honored the opponents of
repression and implicitly or explicitly criticized the powers that be—atacktaken
with regard to South Africa as well, with predictably disappointing results, in
1960 and 1984—the Prize Committee in 1993 hailed the South African gov-
ernment for its initiative, encouraging it along its liberalizing path rather than
taking it to task for its misdeeds. The Prize thus worked with state power,
rather than against it. The previous yearʼs award, to Rigoberta Menchú, was
also unusual, in that it came amidst an ongoing civil war. Levels of violence
were already high in Guatemala, and the conflict had ebbed and waned several
times. It is difficult to attribute any increase in state violence to the award, nor
did the Guatemalan government seem to grow any more intransigent than it
already was. Overall, the award seems to have had little impact on the stalled
negotiations, which resumed only a year later, after a UN special representa-
tive came on the scene; Menchú and the Nobel Prize were, from the perspec-
tive of the peace process, irrelevant.
To be clear, the claim here is not that the Nobel Peace Prize was the pri-
mary or fundamental reason that these states repressed activism on behalf of
democracy and human rights. After all, in these cases, the Prize was given pre-
cisely to draw attention to ongoing or recently intensified repression in author-
itarian regimes and to pressure those regimes for change. Moreover, as I make
Andrew and Mitrokhin, Sword and the Shield, 322–336; Richard Lourie, Sakharov: A Biography
(Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2002), 276–277.
Susanne Jonas, “Democratization Through Peace: The Difficult Case of Guatemala,”Journal of
Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 42 (Winter 2000): 9–38, at 12; David Holiday, “Guatemalaʼs
Long Road to Peace,”Current History 96 (February 1997): 68–74.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |609
clear in the brief case studies that follow, an upsurge of activism and repression
often preceded, and motivated, the award. Finally, as I discuss below, other
factors, in addition to the Prize, often contributed to the authoritarian regimeʼs
sense of encirclement and anxiety. But, within the necessary space constraints,
I do seek at least to clear room for the possibility, and to suggest that it is plau-
sible, that the Nobel Peace Prize not only failed to produce greater tolerance
of dissent, but exacerbated the regimeʼs perceived vulnerability and boosted its
incentives to stifle dissent in the short to medium run. In the long run, the in-
creased repression that follows the award might contribute to liberalization,
and indeed one could argue that this was the case in South Africa after Desmond
Tutu was honored in 1984. But such processes are highly contingent; China,
Iran, and Myanmar—the three cases explored below—have not, in the years
since the award, experienced much political liberalization. Moreover, this
complex causal chain does not reflect how the Nobel Committee envisions
the award exerting a progressive impact. Because the Prize advocatesʼcatalog
of effects focuses on the short to medium run, so too does this article, fully
aware that the repression prompted by the award may nevertheless be part
of the winding, long-run, and always uncertain path to liberalism.
One might reasonably argue that the Peace Prize awarded in 1989 to Tibetʼs
supreme religious leader and national symbol made little difference to the
Tibetan cause. Chinaʼs response to Tibetan demands for self-rule has varied over
time, but it took a hard-line turn in 1988 after Tibetan activism intensified. The
authorities imposed martial law in Lhasa in March 1989, after bloody clashes
between protesters and police, and although it was formally lifted in May 1990,
that was a “cosmetic exercise,”as the authorities retained and continued to
employ these repressive tools.
Tibetans were highly mobilized immediately
before and immediately after the award, and Chinese policy was repressive
before and after as well. The Peace Prize would, at first blush, seem to have
had little impact. Yet such an account presumes that the path of politics is lin-
ear, that the Tibetans and the Chinese government would, independent of the
Peace Prize, have proceeded along the same way regardless. It misses the con-
tingency of political process, and it fails to grasp how the Nobel Prize altered
the politics on both sides.
In one sense, the award was successful. It sought to give emotional succor
to the Tibetan people and to democracy activists across China, and to pressure
the Chinese government for change. After the Tiananmen Square massacre of
June 1989, the Committee used the Peace Prize to send a message of interna-
Human Rights Watch, Merciless Repression: Human Rights in Tibet (New York: Human Rights
Watch, 1990); Jonathan Mirsky, “Chinese Chase U.S. Loans by Lifting Martial Law in Tibet,”Globe
and Mail, 3 May 1990.
610 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
tional displeasure to the Chinese government.
In awarding the Prize to the
Dalai Lama, it emphasized his “philosophy of peace”and his steadfast
opposition to violence, no matter how worthy the cause, in pointed contrast
to the Chinese authoritiesʼrepression; in Tibet, “as in other parts of the world,
it is becoming increasingly obvious that problems cannot be solved by the use
of brutal military power to crush peaceful demonstrations.”That the interna-
tional community had sided with the Tibetan struggle against the “Chinese
indeed seems to have buoyed the spirits of Tibetans and revital-
ized their flagging campaign. “Tibetans everywhere considered this a major
victory”—confirmation of the justice of their cause and a sign of the worldʼs
support. Tibetans in Lhasa reacted to the announcement with pride, and
some took to the streets in celebration.
A representative of the Dalai Lama
declared the award “the best thing that has happened to Tibetans in 40 years.”
That fall and especially the following winter and spring, political unrest spread
Tibetans calculated that with the world focused upon them,
thanks to the Prize, the Chinese authorities would prove more lenient. They
The Chinese undertook a vicious crackdown in late fall 1989. A week after
the Nobel Committeeʼs announcement, the authorities forbade even such tra-
ditional, non-violent forms of celebration as burning incense and throwing
tsampa (flour) into the air. Public religious observances were also banned.
Political imprisonment, according to Human Rights Watch, abounded in the
period after the award.
On the first anniversary of the imposition of martial
law, in March 1990, China held a military parade in Lhasa that was intended,
by one account, to make “clear what would follow even the most peaceful
demonstration against their presence.”Tibetans reported that the parade
Sheila Rule, “How, and Why, the Dalai Lama Won the Peace Prize,”The New York Times,13Oc-
Press Release, 5 October 1989, accessed at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1989/
press.html, 8 July 2009; Presentation Speech, accessed at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/
laureates/1989/presentation-speech.html, 8 July 2009.
Human Rights Watch, Merciless Repression, 27; Melvyn C. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the
Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 91. See also
Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1999), 431.
Philip Colley, “Support for Tibet Grows in China,”Guardian, 4 January 1990.
“Unrest Spreads in Tibet,”Guardian, 6 April 1990.
“New Crackdown Follows Celebrations in Lhasa,”The Washington Post, 21 December 1989; Hu-
man Rights Committee of LAWASIA and Tibet Information Network, Defying the Dragon: China and
Human Rights in Tibet (London: Tibet Information Network, 1991), 30; Ronald David Schwartz, Circle
of Protest: Political Ritual in the Tibetan Uprising, 1987–92 (New York: Columbia University Press,
1994), 173; Robert Barnett, “Symbols and Protest: The Iconography of Demonstrations in Tibet,
1987–1990”in Robert Barnett, ed., Resistance and Reform in Tibet (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1994), 250–251.
Human Rights Watch, Merciless Repression,34–37.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |611
marked the authoritiesʼ“biggest show of force”since political unrest had com-
menced two and a half years before.
The last six months of martial law—from
November 1989 to April 1990—reportedly marked the period of most-intense
Chinese repression, with as many as 2,000 Tibetans executed, countless more
imprisoned and tortured, houses razed, and monasteries violated. Human
Rights Watch/Asia Watch reported in May 1990 that “the incidence of serious
torture is at least as bad as it has been for years, and in some cases, it seems
While the intensified repression in Tibet cannot be divorced from the
larger context of the Tiananmen protest and crackdown—indeed, the Nobel
Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama within that context—the patterns in
Tibet were distinctive, part of a history that preceded Tiananmen and the de-
mocracy movement and proceeded at least somewhat independently of them.
Repression in Tibet came not immediately after Tiananmen, but, hardly coin-
cidentally, later—with the Dalai Lama winning the Peace Prize and with the
international community seeming to legitimize Tibetan independence claims.
In fact, beginning in November 1989, government cadres charged with coun-
tering Tibetan “splittism,”especially in monasteries and nunneries, were spe-
cifically told, in addition to their other duties, “to condemn and campaign
against the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama.”
scholar concludes, the Prize, marking the culmination of a string of interna-
tional successes by the Dalai Lama, signaled that “momentum appeared to
have shifted to the Dalai Lama …[and] Beijing reacted predictably to the
threat this shift in momentum posed by moving to a more hard-line, integra-
If the Nobel Committee was sending a message, so too was the
Awarding the Peace Prize to the 14
Dalai Lama was gratifying to Tibetan
nationalists living abroad, and it may even have been welcomed by nationalists
within Tibet. But it did little to make an autonomous, let alone an indepen-
dent, Tibet a reality or to make the Chinese authorities more open to Tibetan
demands—just the opposite. Instead, the government, eager to prove that it
could not be bullied by the international community and that it had resolve
in reserves, battened down the hatches, refused concessions, and ramped up
repression. That the award might have this effect was anticipated by at least
some contemporary observers,
and the reaction may have been reinforced by
Chinese cultural norms highly sensitive to loss of “face.”
“Eyewitness: Chinese Show of Force Chills Tibet,”Guardian, 9 March 1990.
Peter Ellingsen, “Crackdown Reported in Tibet,”Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 1990; Lena
H. Sun, “Human-Rights Abuses Said to Mount in Tibet,”The Washington Post, 29 May 1990.
Ronald D. Schwartz, “The Anti-Splittist Campaign and Tibetan Political Consciousness,”in
Barnett, ed., Resistance and Reform, 217.
Goldstein, Snow Lion and the Dragon, 91. See also Shakya, Dragon in the Land of Snows,431–433.
Jonathan Mirsky, “Giving Peace Prize to Dalai Lama may Tighten Chinaʼs Screws on Tibet,”
Globe and Mail, 9 October 1989.
612 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
The Nobel Peace Prize did not, of course, produce this unwelcome back-
lash in isolation from other instances of international pressure—notably U.S.
congressional resolutions—and domestic discontent in Tibet and elsewhere
in China. As international “interference”in Chinaʼs“domestic affairs”grew
and as civil society became more restive, the Chinese government reconsid-
ered the moderate stance it had adopted toward Tibet in the first half of the
decade, and it clamped down on the dissent it had permitted (in relative terms)
to flourish. But the Prize did mark the symbolic culmination of the Dalai
Lamaʼs efforts to win international support for the Tibetan cause and to per-
suade the world of Chinese aggression against his country. In the mid-1980s
he began to travel more frequently abroad, with an expressly political agenda,
to establish allied groups across the world, especially but not exclusively in the
United States, to recruit foreign parliamentarians to the Tibetan cause, and to
build global popular support for Tibet.
The Dalai Lama proved a skilled pol-
itician, outmaneuvering the Chinese in Western forums; he was successful be-
yond all expectations, and the Peace Prize was perhaps his greatest tactical
success. But, despite the Dalai Lamaʼs tactical accomplishments, the strategy
was misguided, and Tibet today is no closer to autonomy than it was 30 years
ago. As one historian concludes, the Dalai Lama “miscalculated.”His efforts did
not “prod Beijing toward further compromise”but “only strengthened the hand
The Peace Prize seems, perhaps even more than Tiananmen,
to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camelʼs, or perhaps the tigerʼs,
back. Chinaʼs reaction to the Prize was its new approach in microcosm: the Prize
spurred China not to adopt a more liberal policy toward Tibetan nationalism,
but rather to tighten the screws.
1991: Aung San Suu Kyi
Observers of Myanmar rightly give the Nobel Peace Prize credit for fixing the
worldʼs attention on the plight of the democratic opposition, embodied in the
figure of Aung San Suu Kyi.
But this, I will argue, represents only the positive
side of the ledger. As in China, the Peace Prize brought substantial costs as
well for the very cause it sought to promote.
One might argue that in Myanmar, as in China, the Nobel Prize was more a
response to, than a cause of, state repression, and indeed the human rights sit-
uation had long been dire in Burma/Myanmar and, in the months before the
Nobel Committeeʼs announcement, it was reportedly deteriorating,
Goldstein, Snow Lion and the Dragon,75–78; Grunfeld, Making of Modern Tibet, 230–232, 236–
238; Shakya, Dragon in the Land of Snows, 412–416; Smith, Jr., Tibetan Nation, chap. 15.
Grunfeld, Making of Modern Tibet, 233, and generally 233–235.
David I. Steinberg, Burma, The State of Myanmar (Washington, DC: Georgetown University
Press, 2001), 90.
Louise Williams, “Junta Tightens Grip on Power,”Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March 1991.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |613
contributing to the Committeeʼs choice. But the decision to honor Aung San
Suu Kyi intensified the regimeʼs fear of encirclement, activated its sensitivity to
foreign interference in Myanmarʼs affairs, and increased its reason and in-
centives to lash out. Just before the Prize was awarded, Myanmarʼs military
rulers—the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)—purged
the civil service, firing 15,000 civil servants. The move marked the final stage
of the SLORCʼs steady reassertion of control over Myanmarʼs institutions and
but it was also “a symptom,”according to a “well-informed Yangon
resident,”“of [the regimeʼs] anxiety,”specifically its “nervousness”at the pros-
pect of Suu Kyi winning the Prize. Later that fall, Amnesty International
charged the SLORC with having intensified its efforts to crush the countryʼs
Student leaders were rounded up in the days and
weeks after the Prize announcement; opposition and ethnic political party
leaders were detained and asked to provide their “opinion”on the awarding
of the Peace Prize to Suu Kyi. Also that fall, the remaining leadership of the
countryʼs second-largest opposition party fled to Thailand, declaring that, as a
result of the regimeʼs persecution, “the status of all political parties has been
Offering concessions was the last thing on the SLORCʼs mind
as it faced a world “bullying our country, threatening our country.”
focused on harassing and punishing Suu Kyiʼs aides and on trying to discredit
Suu Kyi by alleging that she was an agent of imperialist powers, by launching
sexist broadsides against the very prospect of female leadership, and by play-
ing the race card against her children.
When students protested that fall, all
institutions of higher education were shuttered, to reopen only three years later.
By helping to boost “her name and her aura,”a Western diplomat observed,
the Peace Prize made Aung San Suu Kyi a target; the SLORC could no longer
The Prize may also have undermined military moderates, who,
desirous of improving Myanmarʼs international standing, sought a more tolerant
approach toward Suu Kyi and her fellow democracy activists.
Michael W. Charney, A History of Modern Burma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
William Branigin, “Myanmar Said to Purge Civil Service; Opposition Leaderʼs Candidacy for
Nobel Focuses International Ire,”The Washington Post, 14 October 1991; Branigin, “Myanmar Steps
Up Repression, Says Amnesty,”The Washington Post, 10 December 1991.
Myanmar: ‘No Law at Allʼ—Human Rights Violations Under Military Rule (New York: Amnesty
International USA, 1992), 9.
David E. Sanger, “Burmese Military Increases Attacks on Detained Opposition Leader,”The
New York Times, 29 December 1991.
Branigin, “Myanmar Said to Purge Civil Service”; Charney, Modern Burma, 176.
“Burmese Universities are Closed as Military Acts to Block Protests,”The New York Times,13De-
Sanger, “Burmese Military Increases Attacks.”
Andrew Selth, “The Armed Forces and Military Rule in Burma,”in Robert I. Rotberg, ed., Burma:
Prospects for a Democratic Future (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), 99.
614 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
As part of its post–Nobel Prize ramped-up repression, Myanmarʼs military
government initiated that winter an all-out military assault against pro-democratic
rebels and the ethnic insurgents, notably the Karen, with which they were al-
lied. This was reportedly the most intense assault in more than 40 years on the
Karen, and for the first time, the military prosecuted the campaign on all re-
gional fronts at once, producing a transnational refugee crisis. By the end of
March, the military had scored impressive victories, including the capture of a
key strategic mountain from which it could freely lob mortars and artillery into
the rebel capital, though these advances fell short of the militaryʼs promise to
capture the rebelsʼheadquarters.
The campaign signaled the always-anxious
regimeʼs heightened anxiety in the wake of the Prize, but it also revealed the
militaryʼs increased capability, thanks to an infusion of Chinese weapons. (A
complementary explanation is that the SLORC saw these military operations
as diversionary, hoping thereby to focus the populationʼs attention on matters
other than democracy.) The regimeʼssuccess—magnified because the pro-
democracy movement had tarnished itself by engaging in an internal witch
hunt in which it used torture to extract confessions from alleged government
spies—may have reduced its anxiety to the point that it could allow some cos-
metic concessions, such as releasing a few hundred less-prominent political
prisoners, allowing Suu Kyiʼs family to visit her without preconditions, opening
a dialogue with the now-weakened opposition, and (by fall) lifting martial law;
however, “these actions and promises,”one analyst noted, “add[ed] up to
nothing more than the appearance of change.”
In sum, the Nobel Peace Prize did bring greater attention to Myanmar and
coalesce Western pressure, but the result was to weaken, not strengthen, pro-
democracy forces: SLORC repression grew, and the pro-democracy movement
cracked. The events of 1991–1992 bore out an observation common among
Burmese: the military regime has been only marginally responsive to pressure,
whether domestic or international in origin, and such pressure often has proved
As one balanced critic of the Westʼs policy of censure,
Because of the intensity of the militaryʼs efforts, one analyst characterized the campaign as a
“clear defeat,”but it is not clear that the military saw it that way. See Josef Silverstein, “Burma in
an International Perspective,”Asian Survey 32 (October 1992): 951–963, at 959. See, generally, Larry
Jagan, “Offensive Targets Burmaʼs Ethnic Rebels,”Toronto Star, 16 February 1992; William Branigin,
“Burmese Recount Tales of Terror at Hands of Troops,”The Washington Post, 16 February 1992;
Barbara Crosette, “Thousands of Burmese Said to Flee Drive by Army,”The New York Times,
5 March 1992; Philip Shenon, “Military Operations to Stop,”The New York Times, 29 April 1992.
Others attributed these liberalizing moves to the militaryʼs inability to overrun the Karen head-
quarters before the monsoon season. Generally, on the liberalization, see David I. Steinberg, “Myanmar
in 1992: Plus Ça Change ...?”Asian Survey 33 (February 1993): 175–183, esp. 176–178; Silverstein,
“Burma in an International Perspective”; and Robert D. McFadden, “Burmese Rulers Releasing a
Dozen Political Prisoners,”The New York Times, 26 April 1992.
Sheryl WuDunn, “Dissent by Burmese Only Brings More Repression,”The New York Times,
25 November 1990.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |615
sanctions, and isolation notes, “the SLORC/SPDC [State Peace and Develop-
ment Council, as the SLORC was renamed in 1997] has generally appeared
more concerned about domestic stability than international respectability,”
and the Western approach has reinforced the sense of siege prevalent among
the countryʼs nationalistic military leaders—without substantially undercutting
the stateʼs capacity for repression.
Not only did the Prize bolster regime hard-liners, but it also mobilized pro-
democratic forces in Myanmar, giving the regime greater excuse to crack down
and thus deepening the tragedy. Many accounts emphasize that the award gave
hope to beleaguered democracy activists. One Yangon resident told journal-
ists, “This is the best news we have had for a long time. It must make a differ-
ence. Not even the Burmese military can ignore the message conveyed by the
On the very day the Prize was awarded to Suu Kyi in absentia,
students rallied against the SLORC in the largest anti-government demonstra-
tion since 1988, when the regime had squashed the pro-democracy movement.
Dozens of her supporters were arrested for hanging congratulatory notices,
and perhaps 900 were ultimately arrested that month.
Computerized content analysis of global media also suggests that protest
activity in Myanmar was more intense in fall 1991 and that government repres-
sion was especially severe toward the end of 1991 and especially in 1992. The
IDEA database lists no “protest demonstrations”in 1989–1990 or 1992–1993,
but it lists two such events in 1991, both in mid-October, after the award had
been announced. This source lists more arrests and detentions in 1992, espe-
cially January and February, than in surrounding years. It cites also three times
as many military raids in 1992, especially in the mid-spring; that year also saw
four major military mobilizations, three in January.
The World Handbook of
Political Indicators IV records twice as many “government violent actions”in
1992 as in surrounding years and nearly twice as many “government forceful
actions.”More clearly targeted domestically are events that the database cat-
egorizes as “civil direct,”“civil violent,”and “civil forceful”actions, and these
also reveal heightened activity in 1992.
One should not rely too heavily on
Morten B. Pedersen, Promoting Human Rights in Burma: A Critique of Western Sanctions Policy
(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), quote at 219, generally 221–233. See also Andrew Selth,
“Burmaʼs‘Saffron Revolutionʼand the Limits of International Influence,”Australian Journal of In-
ternational Affairs 62 (September 2008): 281–297.
Neil Kelly and Tony Samstag, “Nobel Peace Prize Gives Burma Hope,”The Times, 15 October
1991. See also Steinberg, Burma, 91.
“Students Protest Burmaʼs Junta,”Toronto Star, 10 December 1991; Raymond Whitaker, “Suu
Kyiʼs Supporters ‘Arrestedʼin Burma,”Independent, 10 December 1991; David E. Sanger, “Burmese
Dissidents Say 900 were Arrested in Crackdown,”The New York Times, 19 December 1991.
Integrated Data for Event Analysis, available at www.vranet.com/idea. Data compiled by Aaron
Rapport, August 2007.
In the case of the World Handbook, these data are especially preliminary, according to its editors
in an April 2002 memo. Data compiled by Aaron Rapport, August 2007.
616 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
such data, since media access to Myanmar is highly restricted and coverage is
But it is suggestive. Some have argued that, more broadly,
Western policy has sustained false hopes and an unrealistically hard line
among the Burmese opposition and that the Nobel Peace Prize in particular
may have reduced Suu Kyiʼs room for maneuver, compelling her to hew pub-
licly to an uncompromising stance.
Some observers acknowledged that one could not expect “the Burmese
military, with its xenophobic instincts and skill at repression, suddenly to col-
lapse or to feel very much shame,”but they hoped that the Prize might suffi-
ciently embarrass Myanmarʼs neighbors that they would bring their leverage to
In November 1991, perhaps because of the attention the Prize had
drawn, Myanmarʼs neighbors stopped opposing a UN resolution rebuking
the SLORC—a resolution they had blocked a year before—and even China
and Cuba, which normally opposed any measure criticizing a countryʼs human
rights situation, voted for the resolution, which explicitly noted the Prize.
However, this was hardly the norm. Myanmarʼs neighbors, with the notable
exception of the Philippines, generally offered little criticism and instead con-
tinued to try to integrate the country into regional institutions. Members of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) persisted in their approach
of “constructive engagement,”and they continued to conduct lucrative trade
in raw materials and arms with Myanmar.
Human rights groups singled out
ASEAN member states for their lack of cooperation in bringing pressure on
For Myanmarʼs neighbors, Nobel Peace Prize or not, it was busi-
ness as usual. European countries gradually followed suit, so that by 1995,
Myanmar had won “the battle for global acceptance,”and even the U.S. com-
mitment to isolating the regime was wearing thin.
Another concern is that the data reflect actual events less than they do global media interest,
which increased after the Peace Prize. However, while coverage of Burma was greater from January
1992—as much as 30 percent more—it seems unlikely that this can account for the even larger in-
creases in reported events, at times on the order of 200–300 percent.
Pedersen, Promoting Human Rights, 232–233, 250.
Steven Erlanger, “The Power of the Peace Prize May be Lost on Myanmar,”The New York Times,
20 October 1991.
Paul Lewis, “U.N. Rebukes Burma Military for Refusing to Yield Power,”The New York Times,
30 November 1991.
John Bray, Burma: The Politics of Constructive Engagement (London: Royal Institute of Inter-
national Affairs, 1995), chap. 5.
Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Burma—The International Response to Continuing Hu-
man Rights Violations, 10 February 1992. More generally, see J. Mohan Malik, “BurmaʼsRolein
Regional Security,”in Robert I. Rotberg, ed., Burma: Prospects for a Democratic Future (Washington,
DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), 121–123; Steinberg, Burma, 237–240.
Barbara Bradley, “U.S. Slowly Loses Fight to Isolate Regime Over Rights Abuses,”Christian
Science Monitor, 4 January 1995.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |617
2003: Shirin Ebadi
In awarding the Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi of Iran, the Nobel Committee
declared its “hope that the Prize will be an inspiration for all those who strug-
gle for human rights and democracy in her country, in the Moslem world, and
in all countries where the fight for human rights needs inspiration and sup-
While not all Iranians were enamored of the mullahs and while some
were attracted to the West, liberal reformers like Ebadi were lonely voices in
Iranian society, lacking grassroots support.
The Nobel Committee sought
through the prestigious award to bolster Ebadi and like-minded activists in
Iran and across the Muslim world; to attract local support to their cause; to
draw international media attention; and thereby to compel illiberal regimes
to tolerate liberal oases in their midst. We have already seen that the award
did not draw more international media attention to the fate of reform in Iran
but that it did boost the profile of Ebadi, relatively unknown before October
2003. In the West, Ebadi came to serve as a major, if not the preeminent, sym-
bol of the struggle for liberalism in Iran and of the regimeʼs insecurity and its
However, the Nobel Prize offered Ebadi and her fellow reformers scant
protection. Not only did they make little headway, but their political position
slipped as they tried to weather a relentless conservative assault. Ebadi herself
lamented in 2005 that “nothing has changed in Iran. Those who were in power
are still in power.”
Reformers had confronted substantial obstacles before 2003;
conservatives, led by Iranʼs supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
had, especially since the election of the reformist Mohammed Khatami as pres-
ident in 1997, employed the repressive tools of the state, as well as nonstate
forces (“vigilantes”), to beat back the reform challenge.
But the 2003 Peace
Prize offered conservatives a new opening to intervene into Iranʼs constrained
yet still vaguely democratic politics. In January 2004—just three months after
the Peace Prize announcement—the powerful Guardian Council disqualified
some 3,600 reformist candidates for Parliament nationwide, including 80 in-
cumbents, and as many as 900 of 1,700 candidates in Tehran alone. This was
hardly more of the same: the number of disqualifications in 2004 was more
than triple that of 2000, marking “an aggressive reassertion of authority by
Press Release, 10 October 2003, accessed at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/
2003/press.html, 8 July 2009.
Assef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 134; Ali M. Ansari, “Continuous Regime Change From Within,”
Washington Quarterly 26 (Fall 2003): 53–67, at 63.
See, for instance, “The Woman the Mullahs Fear,”The New York Times, 2 January 2009.
Scott Peterson, “How Iranʼs Reformers Lost Their Political Way,”Christian Science Monitor,
1 July 2005.
See Bayat, Making Islam Democratic,115–134; Human Rights Watch, World Report 2003: Human
Rights Developments in Iran, accessed at http://www.hrw.org/legacy/wr2k3/mideast3.html, 8 July 2009.
618 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
—according to some, a “conservative coup.”With many urban
voters disengaged from politics and with key reformers urging a boycott,
conservatives scored a large victory in the February elections; the next year,
with reformers still sidelined, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president.
Over the course of 2004, “the once-robust reform movement …virtually
evaporated”: newspapers and magazines were shut down; student activists
were jailed or at least harassed. Human Rights Watch reported that “respect
for basic human rights in Iran, especially freedom of expression and opinion,”
while never strong, had “deteriorated”; torture and solitary confinement were
used “routinely”to punish dissidents, independent websites were blocked. So-
called “parallel institutions”—paramilitary groups, plainclothes intelligence
agents, secret prisons—“became increasingly open in crushing student protests,
detaining activists, writers, and journalists …and threatening pro-democracy
speakers and audiences at public events.”
One cannot discount the possibility
that the regime might have pursued this path in 2004 regardless of the Nobel
Committeeʼs decision in fall 2003; although Khatamiʼs election had put conser-
vatives on the defensive, they swiftly regrouped, and Khatamiʼs presidency was
generally marked by the consolidation of conservativesʼgains and by the
enfeebling of the opposition.
Further, the U.S. victory in Iraq in spring
2003, in which the “coalition of the willing”had easily defeated the strongest
Arab national army; the reported U.S. dismissal of Iranʼs sweeping diplomatic
overtures shortly thereafter in May; and the presence of huge numbers of U.S.
troops on Iranʼs doorstep—all these left the Iranian regime feeling deeply
insecure in the latter half of 2003. By one account, in the wake of the Iraq
war, “in their 24-year reign, the clerics had seldom felt so threatened and vul-
At the very least, it gave them political cover to crack down at home,
so as to counter foreign interference in Iranʼs affairs. By awarding the Prize to a
leading reformer on the heels of the Iraq war and of Iranʼs rejected “grand bar-
gain”with the United States, the Nobel Committee only added to the conser-
vativesʼfears of encirclement and bolstered their disinclination to give ground
Karl Vick, “Iranian Reformers Protest Move Barring Many from Reelection,”The New York
Times, 12 January 2004.
Robin Wright, “Keeping Faith in Reform, and Islam, in Iran,”The Washington Post, 15 Decem-
ber 2004; Human Rights Watch, World Report 2005: Human Rights Overview, Iran, 2004, accessed at
www.hrw.org/english/docs/2005/01/13/iran9803.htm, 8 July 2009.
Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2006), 136–145; Fakhreddin Azimi, The Quest for Democracy in Iran: A
Century of Struggle Against Authoritarian Rule (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008),
380–399; and Elliot Hen-Tov, “Understanding Iranʼs New Authoritarianism,”Washington Quarterly
30 (Winter 2006–2007): 163–179, esp. 164–169. For a more generous assessment of the reformistsʼ
achievements and of Khatamiʼs leadership, see Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 186–191.
Trita Parsi, ”The Price of Not Talking to Iran,”World Policy Journal 23 (Winter 2006–2007):
11–17, at 13. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for urging me to emphasize this context.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |619
to the domestic opposition. There is some evidence that hard-liners under-
stood the Prize precisely in this light, as an attempt to interfere with the up-
coming parliamentary elections.
It is at least plausible that the Nobel Peace
Prize awarded to Shirin Ebadi contributed to, perhaps even sparked, and at
least facilitated the crackdown of 2004.
Not only might the Prize have prompted the regime to silence its critics, but
the critics seem to have silenced themselves. Amnesty International claims that
the 2003 award “contributed to the growth and increasing self-confidence of civil
society,”but it provides no evidence to substantiate this assertion.
In fact, con-
servative efforts to delegitimize the award as a tool of Western interference
succeeded in putting reformers on the defensive.
Immediately after the award
announcement, a close aide to Khatami told Reuters that Ebadiʼs winning the
Prize was “very good news for every Iranian,”but state-run media made little
mention of the award, and Khatami himself subsequently dismissed the Peace
Prize as “not very important”compared to its counterparts in science and lit-
Khatami thereby undercut a fellow reformer, though it is unclear
whether this is because Ebadi represented a secularist break with his vision of
Iran as still an Islamic republic,
or because, ever the cautious politician, he rec-
ognized that any effort to use her prize to further the cause of reform would
leave him vulnerable to conservative attack and thus politically hamstrung.
This has generally been the fate in Iran of criticism originating abroad: nation-
alist conservatives use it to bludgeon their reformist opponents, and reformers
feel compelled to join their opponents in distancing themselves from the West.
The Nobel Committee, like U.S. “democracy promotion”efforts in Iran,
has adopted the view that pressure on the regime and moral as well as financial
support for liberal Iranian civil society is the most effective way to promote
Mahmood Monshipouri, “The Road to Globalization Runs Through Womenʼs Struggle: Iran
and the Impact of the Nobel Peace Prize,”World Affairs 167 (Summer 2004): 3–14, at 7.
Amnesty International Report 2005, Iran.
For examples of conservative reaction, see Parinoosh Arami and Parisa Hafezi, “No Official
Fanfare for Nobel Win in Iran,”New Zealand Herald, 11 October 2003; “Gathering Storm over
Iranianʼs Peace Prize,”Mercury, 13 October 2003.
Arami and Hafezi, “No Official Fanfare”;“Troubled Backdrop for Iranianʼs Nobel Award,”The
Financial Times, 11 October 2003; Dan de Luce, “Iranʼs President Derides Woman Lawyerʼs Nobel as
Unimportant,”Guardian, 15 October 2003.
For this view, see Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, “Iranʼs Democracy Debate,”Middle East Policy
11 (Summer 2004): 94–106, at 103–104.
For this interpretation of Khatamiʼs presidency on the whole, see Jahangir Amuzegar, “Khatami:
A Folk Hero in Search of Relevance,”Middle East Policy 11 (Summer 2004): 75–93.
For more examples, see Bahman Baktiari and Haleh Vaziri, “Iran: Doubting Reform,”Current
History 102 (January 2003): 36–39; Jahangir Amuzegar, “Iranʼs Crumbling Revolution,”Foreign Af-
fairs 82 (January/February 2003): 44–57. There is little evidence to support the International Crisis
Groupʼs optimism in this regard: see the ICGʼs“Iran: Discontent and Disarray,”Middle East Briefing
No. 11, 15 October 2003, 2, accessed at www.crisisgroup.org/library/documents/middle_east_north_
africa/iran_discontent_disarray.pdf, 12 October 2009.
620 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
change. The aims are well-meaning, but the strategy is misguided. As a Teheran
University political scientist explained, “The more pressure the reformists feel—
especially if the pressure is coming from outside—the greater the negative im-
pact on their capacity to mobilize, especially in domestic politics.”
they are already very weak, insecure regimes, like Iranʼs, are more likely to
stand firm than to bend, let alone break. Iranʼs relative isolation from the in-
ternational community and its oil wealth have insulated hard-liners from much
international and domestic pressure,
but the example of Myanmar suggests
that even a poor regime normally has the capabilities to impose its will at home.
Since 2003, Iranʼs domestic milieu has become even more repressive, and in-
creased overt U.S. support for reform, epitomized by the establishment of an
Iran democracy fund, bears at least some of the blame. By 2007, the regime
had undertaken “one of its most ferocious crackdowns on dissent in years”—
detaining as many as 150,000 for wearing un-Islamic clothing in the spring, ar-
resting womenʼs rights advocates and student protesters, banning news stories
on all sensitive topics, closing and forcing underground liberal civil society or-
ganizations, and, according to one critic, fostering “an atmosphere of absolute
terror.”It is revealing that the Westʼs ideological allies in Iran, activists like
Shirin Ebadi, are among the U.S. democracy fundʼs most vociferous critics.
Only the most pollyannaish would expect the Nobel Peace Prize to markedly
and directly promote peace, democracy, and human rights. Yet, the award de-
mands a scholarly analysis—partly because it is always accompanied by a me-
dia frenzy that presumes the awardʼs significance, but more importantly
because both the recipients and their political opponents take the award very
seriously and factor it into their calculations.
This article presents evidence in
abundance that the realist dismissal of such prizes does not accord with the
behavior of opposition activists and regime leaders; realists may be right that
the Prize is the product of a blinkered liberal internationalism that fails to take
into account the realities of power politics, but they are wrong to think that these
prizes have no impact on the dynamics of international and especially domestic
politics. At the same time, however, this article has found little support for the
Prizeʼs advocatesʼchief hope: that the Prize substantially boosts international
media coverage of the recipient and his or her cause.
Karl Vick, “Iranian Hard-Liners Block Reform Bill,”The Washington Post, 4 June 2003.
Bayat, Making Islam Democratic, 133.
Neil MacFarquhar, “Iran Cracks Down on Dissent,”The New York Times, 24 June 2007; Negar
Azimi, “Hard Realities of Soft Power,”New York Times Magazine, 24 June 2007.
The sparse existing scholarly literature has rather different purposes than those of this article.
See Bulloch, “For Whom Nobel Tolls?”; Richard T. Kinnier, Jerry L. Kernes, Jessie Wetherbe Hayman,
Patricia N. Flynn, Elia Simon, and Laura A. Kilian, “Values Most Extolled in Nobel Peace Prize
Speeches,”Journal of Psychology 141 (November 2007): 581–587.
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |621
More perplexingly, from the standpoint of both realists and Prize advocates,
in some circumstances, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize has a real effect
on politics but to the detriment of human rights and democracy: when awarded
to promote domestic change, as it has been more often in recent years, it in fact
mobilizes the forces opposed to change and impedes liberalization. At the same
time, it often—as the Nobel Committee hopes—boosts the spirits of liberal re-
formers. The result is to leave these reformers exposed, precisely at the moment
when leaders are feeling most vulnerable and thus most likely to apply the
stateʼs power to repressive ends. In short, in such cases, the Nobel Peace Prize
brings few benefits and substantial costs. The Nobel Committeeʼs intentions are
often noble, but the noblest of intentions can result in tragic consequences. That
outcomes often depart from actorsʼintentions is, of course, something that re-
alists have long observed about politics, and so this analysis marries a realistʼs
structural and pessimistic sensibility to a liberalʼs appreciation of process.
In most recently honoring President Obama, the Nobel Committee clearly
hoped to encourage his administration to further distance itself from the uni-
lateralist tendencies, confrontational bearing, dismissive rhetoric, and disen-
gaged posture of the George W. Bush years. Whether the Prize will have this
effect remains to be seen, but, as this articleʼs analysis might suggest, there is
reason for skepticism. Obama is hardly a vulnerable liberal activist in an authori-
tarian regime, but he must worry about how his Peace Prize will reverberate in
Americaʼs domestic politics. To those (more conservative) Americans less en-
thralled with Obama, the Peace Prize may be seen as a warning sign that Obama
perhaps shares the Nobel Committeeʼs international agenda (ultra-liberal, as they
see it) and perhaps cares more deeply about advancing the common interests
of the international community than about promoting the interests of the United
States. The Nobel Peace Prize may thus prove a political liability for Obama and
may compel him, in a political environment still deeply shaped by the legacy of
September 11, to take steps to counteract the impression that he is some inter-
nationalist peacenik. Rather than release his inner dove, the Nobel Peace Prize
may force him to brandish his public hawk. He may even feel required to part ways
with the international community just to bolster his credentials as a defender of
If this comes to pass, the Nobel Peace Prize may once again
help produce a world at odds with the Committeeʼs intent and vision.
Insofar as the Nobel Peace Prize rewards accomplishment, it can be wel-
comed for its performative value, reproducing and thereby reaffirming liberal
ideals. But insofar as the Prize is bestowed for actorsʼaspirations and insofar as
it seeks to promote democratic political change, winners beware.*
This paragraph draws on Ronald Krebs, “Winning the Prize, Losing the Peace,”The Washington
Post, 11 October 2009.
* For helpful comments on earlier versions of this article, the author is grateful to David Edelstein,
Aaron Rapport, and the anonymous reviewers for PSQ. Thanks to Aaron Rapport for excellent re-
search, without which this article would not have been possible. For financial support of this research,
the author acknowledges the McKnight Foundation through the University of Minnesota.
622 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
Nobel Peace Prize Winners, 1901–2009
1901 Henry Dunant H Accomplishment
1901 Frédéric Passy P/D Aspiration
1902 Élie Ducommun P/D Aspiration
1902 Albert Gobat P/D Aspiration
1903 Randal Cremer P/D Aspiration
1904 Institute of International Law ORG-P/D Aspiration
1905 Bertha von Suttner P/D Aspiration
1906 Theodore Roosevelt PP Accomplishment
1907 Ernesto Teodoro Moneta P/D Aspiration
1907 Louis Renault P/D Aspiration
1908 Klas Pontus Arnoldson P/D Aspiration
1908 Fredrik Bajer P/D Aspiration
1909 Auguste Beernaert P/D Aspiration
1909 Paul Henri dʼEstournelles de Constant P/D Aspiration
1910 Permanent International Peace Bureau ORG-P/D Aspiration
1911 Tobias Asser P/D Aspiration
1911 Alfred Fried P/D Aspiration
1912 Elihu Root PP Accomplishment
1913 Henri La Fontaine P/D Aspiration
1917 International Committee of the Red Cross ORG-H Accomplishment
1919 Woodrow Wilson P/D Aspiration
1920 Léon Bourgeois P/D Aspiration
1921 Hjalmar Branting P/D Accomplishment
1921 Christian Lange P/D Aspiration
1922 Fridtjof Nansen H Accomplishment
1925 Sir Austen Chamberlain PP Accomplishment
1925 Charles G. Dawes PP Accomplishment
1926 Aristide Briand P/D Accomplishment
1926 Gustav Stresemann P/D Accomplishment
1927 Ludwig Quidde P/D Aspiration
1927 Ferdinand Buisson, P/D Aspiration
1929 Frank B. Kellogg P/D Aspiration
1930 Nathan Söderblom P/D Aspiration
1931 Jane Addams P/D Aspiration
1931 Nicholas Murray Butler P/D Aspiration
1933 Sir Norman Angell P/D Aspiration
1934 Arthur Henderson P/D Aspiration
1935 Carl von Ossietzky DC Aspiration
1936 Carlos Saavedra Lamas P/D Accomplishment
1937 Robert Cecil P/D Accomplishment
1938 Nansen International Office for Refugees ORG-H Accomplishment
1944 International Committee of the Red Cross ORG-H Accomplishment
1945 Cordell Hull P/D Aspiration
1946 Emily Greene Balch P/D Accomplishment
1946 John R. Mott P/D Accomplishment
1947 Friends Service Council, American
Friends Service Committee
1949 Lord Boyd Orr H Accomplishment
NOBEL PEACE PRIZE |623
1950 Ralph Bunche PP Accomplishment
1951 Léon Jouhaux P/D Accomplishment
1952 Albert Schweitzer H Accomplishment
1953 George C. Marshall P/D Accomplishment
1954 Office of the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees
1957 Lester Bowles Pearson PP Accomplishment
1958 Georges Pire H Accomplishment
1959 Philip Noel-Baker P/D Aspiration
1960 Albert Lutuli DC Aspiration
1961 Dag Hammarskjöld PP Aspiration
1962 Linus Pauling P/D Aspiration
1963 International Committee of the Red Cross,
League of Red Cross Societies
1964 Martin Luther King Jr. DC Accomplishment
1965 United Nations Childrenʼs Fund ORG-H Accomplishment
1968 René Cassin H Accomplishment
1969 International Labour Organization ORG-H Accomplishment
1970 Norman Borlaug H Accomplishment
1971 Willy Brandt PP Accomplishment
1973 Henry Kissinger PP Accomplishment
1973 Le Duc Tho PP Accomplishment
1974 Seán MacBride H Accomplishment
1974 Eisaku Sato P/D; PP Accomplishment
1975 Andrei Sakharov P/D; H Aspiration
1976 Betty Williams DC Aspiration
1976 Mairead Corrigan DC Aspiration
1977 Amnesty International H Accomplishment
1978 Anwar al-Sadat PP Accomplishment
1978 Menachem Begin PP Accomplishment
1979 Mother Teresa H Accomplishment
1980 Adolfo Pérez Esquivel H Aspiration
1981 Office of the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees
1982 Alva Myrdal P/D Accomplishment
1982 Alfonso García Robles P/D Accomplishment
1983 Lech Walesa DC Accomplishment
1984 Desmond Tutu DC Aspiration
1985 International Physicians for the
Prevention of Nuclear War
1986 Elie Wiesel O Accomplishment
1987 Oscar Arias Sánchez PP Aspiration
1988 United Nations Peacekeeping Forces ORG-P/D Accomplishment
1989 The 14th Dalai Lama DC Aspiration
1990 Mikhail Gorbachev P/D Accomplishment
1991 Aung San Suu Kyi DC Aspiration
1992 Rigoberta Menchú Tum DC Aspiration
1993 Nelson Mandela DC Aspiration
1993 F.W. de Klerk DC Aspiration
1994 Yasser Arafat PP Aspiration
1994 Shimon Peres PP Aspiration
624 |POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY
1994 Yitzhak Rabin PP Aspiration
1995 Joseph Rotblat, Pugwash Conferences
on Science and World Affairs
1996 Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo PP Aspiration
1996 José Ramos-Horta PP Aspiration
1997 International Campaign to Ban Landmines,
1998 John Hume PP Aspiration
1998 David Trimble PP Aspiration
1999 Médecins Sans Frontières ORG-H Accomplishment
2000 Kim Dae-jung PP Aspiration
2001 United Nations, Kofi Annan ORG-P/D Aspiration
2002 Jimmy Carter PP Accomplishment
2003 Shirin Ebadi DC Aspiration
2004 Wangari Maathai O Aspiration
2005 International Atomic Energy Agency,
2006 Muhammad Yunus, Grameen Bank O Accomplishment
2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change O Aspiration
2007 Al Gore O Aspiration
2008 Martti Ahtisaari PP Accomplishment
2009 Barack Obama P/D Aspiration
For various reasons, a prize was not given in every year. Those years are excluded from this list.
In years with multiple prize winners, winners are generally listed separately, except in those cases in which the
winners are inseparable (for example, leader and organization, multiple arms of same organization).
Assignment based on the Nobel Committeeʼs cited reason for the award. Categories of award: general peace/
disarmament (P/D); humanitarian (H); intervention in specific peace process (PP); domestic change (DC); orga-
nization (ORG); other (O).
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