The Nobel Peace Prize Kills Satire Again

national interest

by Taras Kuzio

    The Nobel Peace Prize—memorably dubbed “The Nobel War Prize” by the New York Times when awarded to Henry Kissinger in 1973 following his years of unremitting support for America’s doomed and blood-drenched actions in Vietnam and Cambodia—has seldom been short of controversy.

    Recent ill-judged winners include Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (2019), who pledged his commitment to “toil for peace every day” in his acceptance speech months before butchering hundreds of thousands of Eritreans, and Barack Obama (2009), who campaigned for the Presidency on an anti-war ticket but who had, by the time of the Prize ceremony in Stockholm, ordered a 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the international rogue’s gallery of former nominees is headed by 1939 candidates Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin (1945 and 1948), and Vladimir Putin (2020), the latter six years after he first invaded Ukraine and just ahead of launching his full-scale war.

    To this illustrious list was added the rather less well-known Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian-Armenian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin. Vardanyan was considered for U.S. sanctions due to his substantial role as Putin’s money-launderer-in-chief, responsible, according to the OCCRP, for “washing” $4.6 billion through the notorious “Troika Laundromat” centered on Troika Dialog, the Russian private bank which he founded.

    Among Vardanyan’s previous accolades is his recent sanctioning by Ukraine, which exposed his role in the top management of Volga Dnieper, an air cargo business with a major Russian military contract “involved in the material support of actions aimed at undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”

    Nor is Vardanyan the only 2024 nominee raising eyebrows; in fact, his name has joined a list that bizarrely includes Julian Assange and Elon Musk. Curiously, both Assange and Musk have expressed sympathy with Kremlin perspectives over Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine. Notable and interesting characters, certainly—but readers will perhaps agree with me it would be a bit of a stretch to claim they are humanity’s greatest champions of peace.

    The obvious question is: why do the Nobel authorities allow their prestigious reputation to be muddied in this way? The answer is bizarrely simple: their own rules prevent them, now as in 1939, from blocking such reputationally damaging nominations. In fact, the list of those eligible to put names forward for the Peace Prize is so broad that it includes, unbelievably, every single “social science” professor (full, emeritus, or associate) from any university anywhere in the world, alongside a loose assortment of lawyers, think tank chairpersons, unaccountable NGOs, and politicians (again, irrespective of the regime in place and therefore no country barred).

    To be granted the illustrious status of nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, all it takes is for one person from this bewildering, open-ended list to put forward your name—no questions asked. And while the Nobel Prize Committee does not itself announce names, there is nothing to prevent anyone else, candidate or lobbyist, from bragging about a trumped-up nomination.

    That simple fact explains why someone like Vardanyan gets through the door. Although, perhaps unsurprisingly, no one has admitted backing his nomination, it has been claimed that the Kremlin is “actively lobbying” on his behalf.

    No one in their right mind believes his candidacy stands the slightest chance of serious consideration. He is currently held in detention in Azerbaijan for inciting inter-ethnic hostility during his brief tenure as “President” of the illegal and now disbanded “Artsakh” regime in the Karabakh—a role he occupied as a Kremlin agent, as even the former Armenian military chief in Karabakh, Samvel Babayan, has publicly admitted.

    The secular sainthood bestowed simply by being named alongside the Peace Prize means that the process of the nomination has become a free-for-all exercise in zero-cost PR leverage for political axe-grinding and sheer mischief-making. Things were better managed in the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church granted “indulgences” for the sins of the wicked and wealthy. At the very least, the Vatican raked in hefty cash payments in return. The Nobel Prize Committee just pays out—and, in the process, looks foolish.

    The great American comedian and songwriter Tom Lehrer described the day that Kissinger won the Peace Prize as “the day that satire died.” Yet despite controversial winners, the Nobel Peace Prize retains, on paper, a truly noble mission as set out under the terms of the founder’s will: to recognize “the person or organization that has conferred the greatest benefit to humankind in the field of peace.” Instead, an institution with enormous potential to achieve good has allowed itself to shrink into an open invitation for unsavory PR stunts and reputational laundering.

    Supporters of the Nobel institution can point with some justice to actions it has already taken to address some causes of major reputational damage. The body blow of a disastrous 2018 sex-and-corruption scandal involving Committee members led to imprisonment, a temporary prize suspension, and a major cleanout of the over-entitled elite at the top of the organization. It has shown it can change.

    Now is the time for another and more radical change. The Prize Committee must rewrite its own rules, drastically prune the list of those eligible to submit names and prevent the use of nominations as PR exercises for disreputable causes. In the words of a memorable political campaign, it must take back control. The alternative is to blunder blindly onward as a useful idiot in the service of dark forces into ever greater farce, scandal, and eventual oblivion.


    Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy of Kyiv, Ukraine, and a Fellow of the Henry Jackson Society. His most recent book, Fascism and Genocide: Russia’s War Against Ukrainians, was published by Columbia University Press in 2023.

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