Around this time of the year, the world’s attention is focused on Northern Europe as it announces the names of annual Nobel Prize winners. The world joins in the celebration of cultural and scientific advances. The countries lucky enough to have their nationals become Nobel laureates go into states of rapture. Several new global stars are born every autumn through the rigorous screening processes in Norway and Sweden.
A Nobel Prize is not always a blessing to a country or its government. Beijing has been repeatedly embarrassed because most of the Chinese laureates have been anti-government. Gao Xingjian, who received the Noble Prize in literature in 2000, is a novelist and playwright who lives in France following oppression from the government after he openly criticized the communist state’s policies. I was working at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, where Gao studied, at the time the Nobel announcement was made. The school didn’t raise a single banner congratulating its alumnus. The school kept silent on the prize. I read his most well-known novel, “Soul Mountain.” It is an excellent work, but I’m not quite sure its author deserved a Nobel for artistry. Politics appears to have been involved in the granting of the award.
Ten years later, another Chinese received a Nobel Prize and this time in the peace category. Chinese Literary critic and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was chosen as the 2010 Nobel Peace laureate while he was serving his fourth prison term. Literature is a realm of subjectivity and depends on the taste of the judges at the academy. But a Peace prize is all about political intentions and messages. Awarding a political prisoner who has been fighting for human rights in China is the West’s way of spotlighting China’s despotic ways. It was the second time the Nobel Peace Prize committee challenged Beijing after awarding the peace prize to the Dalai Lama of Tibet in 1989.
The Chinese government strongly protested and demanded its own state representatives to boycott the awards ceremony. South Korea dispatched representatives. Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Oslo, which hosts the Norwegian committee that selects the Nobel Peace Prize, soured. Four years have passed. Liu remains in prison. Beijing is as vehement as ever in its resistance to democracy movements, as we can see in its icy response to the street demonstrations in Hong Kong.
The Peace Prize - designed to acknowledge the “person who shall have done the most or the best for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses” - has been criticized for being political, especially when it was awarded to a handful of American statesmen. American presidents Theodore Roosevelt received it in 1906 for his arbitration of an end to the Russo-Japanese war. Woodrow Wilson received it in 1919 for his contribution in creating the League of Nations. Statesmen Cordell Hull (1945), George Marshall (1953) and Henry Kissinger (1973) are also on the list. Lately, former Vice President Al Gore won the award in 2007 and incumbent President Barack Obama in 2009. Most were recognized for diplomatic contributions to ending or avoiding a war, which ironically ignores Washington’s starting or escalation of wars.
In essence, Obama was awarded for having been against George W. Bush’s Iraq war. But he is now under pressure to strike Iraq and Syria to contain the ruthless militant forces called the Islamic State. A Nobel Peace Prize winner may have to launch a bigger military campaign in the Middle East than his predecessor, who was so roundly criticized for starting an unnecessary, ridiculously expensive war.
It was not the first time the Nobel Committee has been criticized for its choices. Mikhail Gorbachev picked up a Peace Prize in 1990 for ending the Cold War, but at home he is considered a national traitor for destroying the Russian empire. Vladimir Putin is trying his hardest to rebuild it.
The Nobel Prize in economic sciences was not one of the awards stipulated in the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895. The prize was established by the Swedish central bank in memory of Nobel in 1968 on the occasion of its 300th anniversary. But that prize is announced every year in the same season. It has been criticized for its narrowness and bias toward mainstream economics. The awardees are mostly American- and British-born, and use quantitative research methods. In 1997 two board directors of Long-Term Capital Management shared the prize for a “new method to determine the value of derivatives” but the company lost billions the following year and was dissolved in 2000.
The Nobel Prizes are iconic examples of the soft power of Western civilization. Alfred Nobel was a brilliant scientist and entrepreneur - and no more. The prize is a set of awards by Swedish and Norwegian committees. What we should learn is the two countries’ extraordinary strategy of developing a global brand through capitalizing on their strengths of neutrality and objectivity. We should stop looking at the stars or pointing fingers and marvel at what has been achieved.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff JoongAng Sunday, Oct. 12, Page 31
*The author is a professor of Soongsil University.
By Cho Hong-shik