President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize has sparked an understandable range of reactions, from surprise and outrage to apologetics for the Nobel Committee’s decision to honor him so prematurely. It’s worth remembering that nominations for the Peace Prize must be received by February 1 of each year, meaning that Obama was nominated less than two weeks after becoming president.
Then again, getting nominated is not difficult. Nominations can be made by, among others, any members of national assemblies and governments; judges on the Inter-Parliamentary Union Permanent Court of Arbitration, the International Court of Justice, or the International Court of Justice; or university professors of history, political science, philosophy, law, or theology. This year saw a record 205 nominations. Unlike the Academy Awards, the Nobel Committee keeps the full list of nominations secret for several years. It was revealed well after the fact, for example, that Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini received nominations—though in Hitler’s case, before he decided to invade Norway.
Perhaps that’s not so ironic when one recalls that Alfred Nobel was an arms dealer and dynamite inventor. But he specified in his will in 1895 that a five-person Nobel Committee elected by the Norwegian Parliament should award the Peace Prize 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.” Nominations are considered at a meeting attended by permanent advisers to the Nobel Institute, which consists of the Institute’s director and research director and a small number of Norwegian academics with expertise in subject areas relating to the prize. Some nominees have even campaigned for the award during this evaluation period. Oil magnate Armand Hammer spent an estimated $5 million in 1989, for instance, trying to sway the Norwegians’ decision. He made it to the short list, but lost out to the 14th Dalai Lama.
The five-person committee selects the laureate in October. The prize is presented annually in Oslo, in the presence of the king, on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. In 2009, four out of the five key deciders were women. Though the committee seeks a unanimous decision, the winner may receive a simple majority of three votes.
So considering the Nobel Committee’s inner workings and its history, President Obama’s award is perhaps not so surprising after all.