With one of last year's recipients, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, having turned out to be something less than the visionary peacemaker that the award would imply after he put the kibosh on Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace agreement, committee members could be forgiven for casting a skeptical eye over 1999's other front-runners: U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan may be the world's preeminent peacemaker, but he was left flailing helplessly on the sidelines as the Kosovo conflict took shape and East Timor descended into anarchy. Similarly, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke's previous efforts in the Balkans may have paled in light of the Kosovo war. President Clinton's peacemaking centerpiece, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, has been an underwhelming success, and he's been more of a warrior than a peacemaker over the past year, while Pope John Paul II and President Carter haven't been particularly visible recently in mediating conflicts. In light of the competition, the Nobel Committee made an inspired choice.
This time, the Nobel Committee played it safe and with good reason. Last year they got burned (remember Northern Ireland?) and 1999 wasn't exactly a blessed year for the world's peacemakers. The Nobel Peace Prize went Friday to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), the universally acclaimed humanitarian aid organization that is often first into the world's hot spots. It was an uncontroversial choice, avoiding both the ruffling of feathers and the risk of disappointment. China had lobbied intensely against the award going to exiled dissidents Wang Dan and Wei Jingshen, but it is hard to accuse the Nobel Committee of tiptoeing around Beijing after it awarded the prize to the Dalai Lama in the year of the Tiananmen Square killings.