Every October, we learn the name of the latest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In some quarters, this is a very big deal. A lot of prestige — again, in some quarters — is attached to the prize, and it comes with a very nice medal and almost $1 million in cash, which is nothing to sneeze at in any quarter.
A five-member prize committee appointed by the Storting, Norway’s parliament selects the winner. The membership of the committee officially “reflects the relative strengths of the political parties in the Storting.” So, rather than representing a globe-spanning “We Are the World” chorus, the prize committee instead represents a relatively small country’s quite parochial politics.
Norway, for example, is a country that for decades has defied a legally-binding global moratorium on commercial whaling. This year, Norway will kill 999 minke whales. An ideally peaceful world, as envisioned by some Norwegians, apparently would not protect some of its largest mammalian inhabitants.
It, therefore, should come as no surprise that, over the years, some of the Peace Prize awards have raised a few eyebrows.
We all remember Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAbrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda The root of Joe Biden's troubles MORE’s award in 2009, when he had been president for less than ten months. In fact, the period for making nominations closed exactly 11 days after he took the oath. Notwithstanding that underwhelming historical record, the prize committee decided Obama was the man. (Cynics might think Obama’s main qualification was that he did not spell his name “George W. Bush.”)
Then there was 2007, when Al Gore won the Peace Prize for his efforts to educate people about “man-made climate change, and to … counteract such change.” Gore had produced a movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which purported to explain the long-range effects of climate change.
Many wondered how a documentary about climate change could be related in any direct way to peace, which is after all what the Peace Prize is supposed to be about. There are of course those who believe that climate change is very directly related to everything. For the rest of us, however, the award was a puzzler.
(Is there a bias in the modern Storting favoring Democratic U.S. presidential candidates? In addition to Obama and Gore, Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson were awarded the Peace Prize. Theodore Roosevelt, who won the prize in 1906, is the only winner who ran for president as a Republican, and that was a long time ago.)
Also of interest are those who never won. Of all those in Western Europe who labored to defeat Nazism and restore peace to the world, Winston Churchill surely played the leading role. He was never awarded the Peace Prize. (Perhaps as a consolation, he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.)
And now we come to this year’s winner: the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). ICAN won “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
Everyone knows that using nuclear weapons would bring catastrophic humanitarian consequences — that is exactly what the weapons are for. So ICAN’s real contribution, as judged by the prize committee, must be its work on “a treaty-based prohibition” of such weapons.
A few moments of reflection will confirm two key facts. First, a treaty-based prohibition against nuclear weapons is a practical impossibility. Secondly, the only way to make nuclear weapons effectively obsolete is to develop reliable missile-defense systems. Ronald Reagan (another Republican president who never won the Peace Prize) based his 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative, which was mocked by Democrats as “Star Wars”, on these facts. Reagan was right; his critics were wrong.
Why is a treaty-based prohibition a practical impossibility? Imagine you are the leader of a major nuclear-armed country: the U.S., Russia or China. Your paramount duty is protecting your citizens. Knowing that other countries have nuclear weapons, you maintain a nuclear arsenal to deter any first strike on your own country. And deterrence apparently works, because your country has never suffered a nuclear attack.
Could you ever sincerely agree to eliminate your nuclear arsenal in exchange for promises from the other major nuclear powers that they will eliminate their arsenals? Remember: one or both adversaries might cheat and retain nuclear weapons despite any contrary promise, and the enormous geographic dimensions of both adversaries make it impossible to search every place weapons might be hidden.
I submit that, given such circumstances, no leader of any of the major powers could sincerely agree to such a prohibition.
Missile-defense systems are another matter entirely. If a leader were confident that his or her country had a highly effective missile-defense system, it would be much easier to shelve nuclear weapons kept only as deterrents. And, once it became known that a country had such a defense, that country would be much less likely to be the target of what would almost certainly be a futile first strike.
A campaign for a treaty-based prohibition of nuclear weapons diverts attention from the one path that could render the use of nuclear weapons impossible as a practical matter. ICAN should be urging countries to develop more effective missile-defense systems, rather than to sign on to an impotent treaty. Effective defense systems could do what no treaty could ever do: make the use of nuclear weapons a practical impossibility.
P.S. If international treaties are so effective, why are Norwegians still killing whales?
David E. Weisberg is an attorney and a member of the New York State bar. His scholarly papers on constitutional law are published on the Social Science Research Network.