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Examining the Road to Becoming a Nobel Laureate

October 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks to Scott London, co-editor of "Nobel Lectures in Peace," about the selection process for the Nobel Peace Prize.

JIM LEHRER: That follows two more takes on the Nobel Peace Prize.

Jeffrey Brown starts with the whos and hows of the prize.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, given today’s surprise, we thought a Peace Prize primer was in order.

And, for that, we’re joined by Scott London, a journalist who’s covered and written on the Nobel Committee and Prize for many years. He’s co-editor of the book “Nobel Lectures in Peace,” which he worked on with his grandfather Irwin Abrams, a leading scholar on the Peace Prize.

Scott, start by telling us who actually makes this decision. Who are the people on the committee?

SCOTT LONDON: Well, there are five people on the committee. It’s appointed by the Storting, which is the Norwegian parliament.

And they select from nominations that are sent in from around the world. And a number of people are qualified to nominate. So, the nominations come in literally from around the world. This year, they had a record 205 nominees, mostly individuals, but also about 33 organizations.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’ve — this is — this is the only prize, I guess, that comes out of Norway. And I gather you have met some of the people who had served on the committee.

How diverse a group is it? Who — who are they? What can you tell us about them, their background, personally and professionally?

SCOTT LONDON: Well, they’re — many of them are outstanding sort of public figures in Norway, very well-respected. Many of them have had long and distinguished careers in — in public life in Norway and in politics.

Some of them — you know, this is a committee — the Norwegian Nobel Committee is elected by the Norwegian parliament. So, mostly, these are people who have already been in politics a long time. They don’t have governmental power anymore.

So, most of them, you know, have arrived at this position on the committee after long and distinguished public careers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there is always that — or often that question, are they sending a message, ideological or otherwise? Is there any evidence to help us figure that out one way or the other?

Nobel committee sending a message

SCOTT LONDON: I think that we know that they're trying to send a message.

I mean, this is -- this is something that the Norwegian Nobel Committee knows very well. They have two chances per year, once in October, when the prize is announced, and once in December, when it is given out, to really influence public opinion.

So, they had a great opportunity to do that this year. And, also, in 2002, when the prize went to Jimmy Carter, they made it very clear, I think probably through a misstatement on the part of the chairman, that this was, in fact, a prize that had definite political overtones. It was intended as a kick in the leg, as the quote went, against the Bush administration.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now you mentioned the nomination process. It comes in from many places, although not anybody can send in nominations, I guess. But we don't know who, in the end is nominated, we don't know what the final vote is for 50 years? Is that the way it works.

SCOTT LONDON: That's correct. And I remember one off the chairmen of the committee telling me that they keep very good secrets, in fact, better than the CIA, he said to me, knowing that I was an American.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there criteria they use, or is it subjective in the minds of the particular people serving at a given time?

SCOTT LONDON: I think that there are some general criteria, but, on the whole, they have expanded the definition of what they define as peace.

Originally, of course, in Alfred Nobel's will, the prize was for people who had -- who had worked the hardest for the reduction of standing armies, for organizing peace congresses, and for promoting fraternity between nations. That was a phrase in the will.

And, of course, the -- the selection criteria has broadened dramatically over the last century. And, so, now the prize apparently goes to, you know, human rights activists, even environmentalists.

Change in the Nobel process

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I was going to ask you about that, because, even in recent years, it's broadened even to categories like that, beyond the traditional world leader.

Is there any -- any -- do we know why that's happened, why they have tried to broaden the categories?

SCOTT LONDON: Well, I think that they understand that -- that any peace, especially in the 21st century, has to be based, at some fundamental level, on human freedom, and -- and also on environmental sustainability.

If you don't have a sustainable environment and access to natural resources, of course, that is a breeding ground for conflict. So, I think that they understand that -- that peace has to be broadly defined.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are there precedents you can think of for today? I mean, the attention here is a world leader, which fits into a traditional category, but one who is at this point, even as he himself, says, it's more as aspirational than for what he's accomplished.

SCOTT LONDON: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there precedents you can think of?

Swaying the peace process

SCOTT LONDON: Well, I think that is a good point.

And I -- and, in some ways, I think it is rather unprecedented. And that is why so many of us Nobel Peace Prize watchers were quite surprised this morning when we found out.

There are a few precedents. Willy Brandt got the prize in 1971. He was the German prime minister at that time -- the West German, I should say. And he got it largely for his policy of openness toward East Germany at that time.

And another candidate was Oscar Arias, who got the prize in 1987. And, in both these cases, the Nobel Committee openly acknowledged that they were sort of taking a gamble. They were putting the prestige of the prize behind these peace processes that were still incipient. They were just getting started. But they felt that the added influence of the prize could help to sway the peace process in the right direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you think that, after the fact, they hear what the world thinks? I mean, we just ran a piece showing lots of reaction. Do they pay attention to that?

SCOTT LONDON: I think they do. And I think that it just underscores the sense of great moral responsibility that they feel toward picking a candidate who is worthy and of using the prize to the greatest effect.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Scott London, thanks very much.

SCOTT LONDON: Thank you very much.