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The Nobel Committee Speaks to America

by Itai Sneh on Oct 17, 2002

Itai Sneh

On Oct. 11, the Norwegians awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize to former President Jimmy Carter. By giving him this honor at this time, the Nobel Committee seized the opportunity to express its concern over the long-term global consequences of the aggressive, unilateral policy that the United States has initiated toward Iraq.

Both the timing and the citation accompanying the prize hinted at more than Carter's undisputed courage in promoting peace and human rights. A one-term president who was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980, partly because of the Iran hostage debacle, Carter had been a perennial candidate for the prize.

The grounds for awarding him the Nobel Prize have always been strong. Since leaving the White House Carter has persistently promoted democracy and mediation, and monitored elections that facilitated democracy in countries such as Liberia and Mexico. An advocate of improving health and living conditions, he also deserves credit for his work on economic development and cooperation in poor nations. His unfortunate association with the corrupt bank of Credit and Commerce International in the late 1980s has been long left behind.

There was also his role while in office in securing the 1978 Camp David accords for peace between Israel and Egypt. The leaders of those countries shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year, so giving Carter this award twenty-four years later takes on a special meaning, as comparisons with previous American winners show.

Carter is the third U.S. president to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The differences between him and his predecessors point to the political subtext of choosing Carter this year. Theodore Roosevelt won this coveted honor for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Woodrow Wilson got his for displaying leadership at the 1919 Versailles Conference after World War I.

These awards came at the height of those presidents' careers. They also signaled the emergence of the United States as a world-class power. The one restored peace to the Far East in the first decade of the twentieth century, and the other to Europe in the second decade.

But the award to Carter at this critical moment presents a different case. It is no coincidence that he won when the Bush administration was pushing the United Nations Security Council toward a resolution that might result in the use of force against Iraq. In announcing the prize, the chairman of the Nobel Committee, Gunnar Berge, called attention to Carter's opposition to the policies of the current president. Carter has publicly questioned the Bush doctrine envisioning a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. He also went to Cuba last spring in a direct rebuke to the punitive anti-Castro policy of the United States. The Norwegian committee chose the prize to send America a message, perhaps aiming to add heft to the moderates within the Bush cabinet, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Carter clearly won the Nobel Peace Prize for his moral influence and political activism during the more than twenty years since his presidency ended. That splendid record also created a highly visible platform for Europeans to remind Americans of their finest presidential — and post-presidential — traditions.


Itai Sneh is an assistant professor of history for world civilizations, human rights and international law at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York.