The Nobel Peace Prize and the democratic peace

How many different Nobel Peace Prizes are there? Alfred Nobel’s will left three particular criteria by which the Prize should be awarded: support for ‘fraternity between nations’, the abolition of standing armies and disarmament, and the holding of peace congresses. But from the beginning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has taken a more expansive approach to defining peace in its decisions to award the prize.

At a talk in Oxford earlier in the week, Geir Lundestad, professor of international history and secretary to the Norwegian Nobel Committee offered three ways in which this has happened. The first was in including issues of humanitarian assistance, and the third in attention to environmental issues (with the suggestion that the recent awards to Al Gore/the IPCC and Wangari Maathai will not, in the longer term, be seen as exceptional).

But I found the second way in which the committee has defined peace quite striking, in its explicit embrace of ideas of the democratic peace, principally found in the argument that democracies are far less likely to go to war than nondemocracies. According to Lundestad:

“The second widening of the definition was the inclusion of human rights. We have argued for many years, what the first human rights Nobel prize was. The first definite one was Albert Lutuli in 1960…If you follow the debate among peace researchers and political scientists, the connection between human rights, democracy and peace was very controversial, certainly during the Cold War. But after the end of the Cold War, a mysterious consensus has developed among these researchers where they now claim that the connection between human rights, democracy and peace is one of the most robust findings in modern political science. Well, the committee has believed this for fifty years, but we welcome the support of peace researchers and political scientists.”

I’d never really thought of the Nobel Prize in terms of the democratic peace before, itself part of a more general liberal and Kantian argument that not only links democracy with peace, but also with economic interdependence and multilateral international organizations, all creating virtuous cycles of peace. The Prize, in this line of argument, by recognizing respect for human rights, hopes to encourage a more peaceful world.

In his talk, Lundestad was quite keen to downplay the transformational significance of the Nobel, describing the judges as “five unknown Norwegians”. But there’s a particular morality of peace offered here, and in doing so places the Nobel within a specific normative framework about the ‘good’ in world affairs. Perhaps the Chinese government shouldn’t have been so surprised.

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3 thoughts on “The Nobel Peace Prize and the democratic peace

  1. wewedidi says:

    The connection between peace, democracy and human rights appeared to respond the blurring boundaries of modern sovereign states. The refined concept of sovereignty does not anymore allow the government to exercise its authority without any outside restriction. That’s why humanitarian intervention could be justified by the name of human rights since 1960s. By the way, I heard some there was a debate between the Professor and Chinese students, is that true?

  2. Nick L says:

    The democratic peace thesis can’t be properly tested until a significant number of democracies exist outside of the North Atlantic bloc for a significant amount of time. Until that happens there is no way of being certain that peace is a generic feature of the relations between democracy rather than a result of the particularly unique alliance system that has developed within the ‘greater West’. The fact that members of this alliance have used deadly force and military threats against other democracies is at least reason to be a bit cautious about the democratic peace.

    Also, most democracies remain very jealous of their sovereignty and only broach restrictions on its exercise under very limited circumstances. But they have been willing to restrict the sovereignty of others under certain circumstances (for a range of reasons, some good in my view others not so good). Here there is more continuity than change, as Stephen Krasner has pointed out with his account of sovereignty as ‘organised hypocrisy’.

  3. Nick Chan says:

    Wewedidi – Intervention justified on humanitarian and human rights grounds seems a more recent phenomenon, chiefly of the 1990s. Lundestad’s point was that the Nobel committee had quite an emphatic view of the democratic peace well before liberal humanitarianism became fashionable in the 1990s.

    As for debate, in terms of the exchanges between Lundestad and some Chinese students, these were largely of the ‘who on earth is Liu, we’ve never heard of him/he’s just a writer’ variety. Lundestad’s response emphasised a series of Liu’s essays on nonviolent change in China, but also that these aren’t inconsistent with the Chinese government’s ratification of international human rights conventions, or proclamations on human rights in China’s own constitution.

    Nick – There was something that lead to my raised eyebrows about what Lundestad was saying, but I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on it – but what’s you’ve said sounds about right in disentangling democracy and the Western-led alliance system.

    Separately, Michael Doyle points out that you indeed, do have liberal empire and liberal justifications for colonialism; liberal democracy at home can lead to rather illiberal practices abroad.

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