The Nobel Prize Committee has been faulted for awarding the 2009 Peace Prize to someone short on concrete accomplishments. Critics, however, should realize that President Barack Obama’s Peace prize is not unprecedented. Another Peace Prize recipient, Sir Norman Angell, won the prize primarily for his ideas, philosophy, and aspirations for the world. And the philosophy that earned Angell his Nobel had a profound influence on world history.
President Obama’s received his Peace Prize, according to the Nobel Committee, for his “efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between nations.” Norman Angell’s Nobel was awarded for similar reasons.
Neither a diplomat nor great statesman, Angell was primarily a writer, an author of books and leader of academic discourse. When awarding Angell his Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee stated “in the work of international peace, there must be a division of labor between technicians and educators.” Angell, they noted, was “an educator, one of those who instruct public opinion, who pave the way for reforms.”
Angell authored numerous books constructing his model for international relations. These included Patriotism Under Three Flags, and his most popular, The Great Illusion. The latter’s central thesis, according the Nobel Committee, is “war is an inadequate method for solving international disputes.” The Great Illusion advocated for a system of international interdependence and a world where large powerful nations did not have greater international relevance than smaller weak nations. Obama’s address to the United Nations tracked Angell’s philosophy so closely it would be surprising if the similarities were accidental.
Angell wistfully advocated for “relinquishing the principle of isolated national defence…and erecting an international authority” to replace “the self interest of individual nations.” The Nobel Committee described Angell as “cool and clear,” and that he “spoke to the intellect.” Most notably, Angell argued, “you cannot kill ideas with bullets.” He believed that an enlightened citizenry, once someone or something enlightened them, would render war obsolete.
Norman Angell won the Nobel in 1933, a most dangerous year for his ideas to gain currency. In January 1933, Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. And in the following years, Norman Angell’s ideas flourished and were adopted as policy by a British Government unwilling to acknowledge the Gathering Storm. Winston Churchill, however, regularly and vociferously opposed Angell and his allies. It took Churchill’s courage to stand against this national naïveté throughout the 1930s, usually alone, and always jeered in the House of Commons. The British government followed Angell’s model for international relations and ignored Churchill, adopting timid diplomatic and defense policies.
The 1933 Peace Prize winner profoundly influenced British policy in ways that led directly to German tanks rolling into Poland in September 1939. War did not break out because nations ignored Angell’s advice; instead, the ensuing carnage in Europe happened because European democracies made Angell’s ideas government policy. Europe gambled that Angell’s model would ensure peace, and by the time everyone saw that the gamble had failed, it was too late. Winston Churchill rose to greatness precisely because he opposed, from the beginning, the philosophy of a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose name few now recognize.
Ultimately, the idea of Nazism was killed with millions of bullets and bombs, and millions more brave men and women. Confronting bloodthirsty evil demands more than dialog.
Angell’s arguments were comfortable in 1933 for the same reasons many today find comfort in the primacy of negotiation as the best tool to confront militant Islam, Iranian nukes or a belligerent Russia: prosperous nations are deluded into thinking talk is always the best way to preserve prosperity. Your familiar comfort and daily routine simply cannot be inconvenienced by wars or rumors of wars. The lessons of an entire century, both Neville Chamberlain’s errors, and Ronald Reagan’s successes, aren’t enough to shake awake a populace blessed with comfort and material satisfaction.
Churchill, responding directly to Angell, asked “who is the man vain enough to suppose that the long antagonisms of history and of time can in all circumstances be adjusted by the smooth and superficial conventions of politicians and ambassadors?” The Nobel Committee may have answered Sir Winston’s query for the 21st century.