Can Europe Make It?

Why a Nobel Nomination is utterly meaningless

We frequently encounter the honorific Nobel prize nominee, almost always referring to the Peace prize. But what does it really signify?

Magnus Nome
7 October 2019
US Secretary of State and Nobel peace prize laureate Henry Kissinger, Egon Bahr and former Ambassador of the USSR in Bonn, Valentin Falin as peace talks begin, 1993.
US Secretary of State and Nobel peace prize laureate Henry Kissinger, Egon Bahr and former Ambassador of the USSR in Bonn, Valentin Falin as peace talks begin, 1993.
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Peter Kneffel/Press Association. All rights reserved.

What does Nobel prize nominee signify? Answer: Absolutely nothing at all.

Whether you consider the Nobel Peace Prize the world's greatest honour or a worthless trinket after whatever pick you vehemently disagreed with, a nomination is not even the latter.

Quite a few restaurants have figured out that if you buy some leaf gold (it’s incredibly thin and so less expensive than you think), slap it on some unremarkable dish and name an insane price, you somehow get a ton of free media coverage.

“Nobel nominee” is the “gold leaf dish” of political writing — a cheap hack to falsely indicate significance. A phrase that appears to carry weight, but in fact means pretty much nothing at all.

In other contexts, few would boast about someone being part of a club that includes Hitler and Stalin, but that’s exactly what is happening here. However much damage has been done by controversial choices, the Nobel Peace Prize is still arguably the most esteemed prize around, ensuring that most who are awarded it will be described first and foremost as “Nobel laureate” for the rest of their lives.

Since the name of the Swedish inventor of dynamite still carries such weight, “Nobel nominee” appears to do so as well. These days we see it often in relation to Greta Thunberg, but others who can claim the title include Donald Trump, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Hugo Chavez, Pope Francis, Rush Limbaugh, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.

A varied crowd, and there’s a good reason for that.

A nomination is nothing more or less than a person – or persons – qualified to nominate declaring: “I've nominated this person”.

A nomination is nothing more or less than a person – or persons – qualified to nominate declaring: “I've nominated this person”.

And there are a lot of those people.

So who are these qualified nominators, with the power to personally create an international news story with almost no effort, while gifting someone the shiny “Nobel nominee” title?

For starters

- Nobel Peace Prize laureates (including board members of awarded organisations)

- current and past members of the Nobel committee

- former advisors to the committee

- members of the international courts in the Hague

So far a pretty exclusive group.

It doesn't stop there though, the right to nominate is also afforded:

- university professors, professors emeriti and associate professors of history, social sciences, law, philosophy, theology, and religion

- university rectors and university directors (or their equivalents)

- directors of peace research institutes and foreign policy institutes

That widens the group significantly. If you're an associate professor in theology at a small town university and feel bored and unseen, know that you can very easily garner the attention of the British press by nominating, say, Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn.

Or simply say that you do. Nominations are secret for 50 years, so the Nobel Committee won't share, confirm or dispute. So if you're too lazy to actually write the letter, don’t worry; just make the declaration. The bluff won’t be called for half a century, and in fact not even then, because no-one will care.

Not enough attention for you? Kanye West, Ivanka Trump, Hillary Rodham Clinton or any other sufficiently controversial US figure should do the trick, the utter irrelevance of the nomination immediately overshadowed by the story's potential to garner clicks. The story will be irresistible to most media outlets: a piece that takes mere minutes to write, is technically correct, and spreads fast and far.

You don't need any academic credentials to nominate though, the list of the qualified also includes:

- members of national assemblies

- members of national governments

- current heads of states.

That's right, any member of any parliament of any country. Most nations have national assemblies with hundreds of members, each endowed with their fair share of wingnuts, provocateurs, and dilettantes with a deep craving for attention.

So there you have it. Far too many people can, unilaterally and with almost no effort, make anyone a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, for it to carry any significance at all.

The nominations were never supposed to be worth anything, the system intended simply to create a large enough pool of good suggestions for the committee, but with some restrictions ensuring there wouldn't be an overwhelming number of names to sort through.

A nomination by a notable nominator is genuinely newsworthy of course — if it’s Obama nominating Thunberg, that’s certainly worth a story. Even more so if it’s Trump. Nominators of stature may wield this power to shine a light on neglected causes or deserving people, but any journalist covering such a declaration should be aware that it is the stature of the nominator, not the nomination itself, that gives it news value.

Perhaps this is why Trump pressured the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to nominate him, or perhaps he just didn’t know Devin Nunes could have served the same purpose – possessing both promotional savvy and unfathomable ignorance, both seem plausible.

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