The Nobel Peace Winner: Important Work, Uninspired Choice

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Former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari in Helsinki.

It's not that Martti Ahtisaari is in any way unworthy of the Nobel Peace Prize — on the contrary, he's spent a lifetime dedicated to mediating the negotiation of political agreements that have resolved armed conflicts in Namibia, Kosovo and Aceh, and has played a positive role in Northern Ireland, the Horn of Africa and countless other conflicts. The reason the Ahtisaari award may seem somewhat uninspired is that brokering peace deals has been the Finnish diplomat and former president's day job for most of the past 40 years. Making peace — or more correctly, helping warring parties, once they have agreed to seek a negotiated solution to their conflict, to actually get there — is Ahtisaari's profession. He's usually deployed as a troubleshooter by the United Nations, or coalitions of its most powerful players. And he's had some notable successes, although in his profession, success or failure is largely determined by the balance of power between the protagonists on the military, political and diplomatic battlefields. To adapt an old joke about psychologists, the answer to the question how many mediators it takes to change a light bulb would be one, but the light bulb would have to really want to change.

That's hardly to minimize the role of the mediator, of course. In recent weeks in the case of Zimbabwe's renewed political crisis, we've seen the dangers that arise when a political agreement is poorly and hastily conceived. President Thabo Mbeki brokered a power-sharing deal between Zimbabwe's rival political camps that failed to specify exactly how, or to create a mechanism for resolving disputes that might arise over how to implement the agreement. Ahtisaari's years of experience may make him a brilliant mediator, but mediators succeed at the pleasure of those who have the power to choose between war and peace.

So, what the Nobel Committee has done is deliver what the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences might call a "lifetime achievement" award to a titan of the international peace industry. "With this year's award the Nobel has gone back to its peace and security roots," said International Crisis Group President Gareth Evans, of the diplomat who remains the respected mediation group's Chairman Emeritus, adding that "no better choice could possibly have been made."

The first point is indisputable: Ahtisaari is a legend of the international peace and security industry, a cadre whose grim task is to design imperfect but workable solutions to the carnage created by politicians. And it's not unusual for the Nobel Committee to honor individuals from that industry in order to draw attention to the importance of the work of the institutions they represent — in 2005 the award went to Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, as a way of signaling the importance of the International Atomic Energy Agency's work in monitoring nuclear proliferation (two years after the Bush Administration blundered into Iraq, pooh-poohing the IAEA's finding that Iraq had no nuclear weapons). In 2001 it went to Kofi Annan, then United Nations Secretary General, to affirm the importance of international law and consensus following the shock of 9/11.

But the Nobel Peace Prize arguably makes its greatest impact on global civil society when it honors individuals who have helped bring peace by changing course, often at great risk — like 1978's awards to Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin, 1990's to Mikhail Gorbachev, or 1993's to Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk. At other times, it has drawn attention to the courage of those who stand up and lead others in a fight for non-violent change in the face of violent repression — Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1984, Lech Walesain 1983, the Dalai Lama in 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. (That principle had many expecting this year's award to go to Chinese dissidents who remained in prison through Beijing's Olympic coming out party.) And sometimes, the award is used to honor those not involved in any conflict situation, but whose work helps alleviate the despair that can drive people to war — from Mother Teresa to Al Gore.

But the award to Ahtisaari may have more in common with the 1988 award, which went to United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, or the 1981 award to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. These are people whose job it is to clean up the wreckage created by politicians — a job that all too often goes unacknowledged. Blessed are the mediators, to be sure, for they shall inherit the mess made by others, with a mandate to stitch it together as best they can. But like a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars, it's richly deserved but not particularly inspiring. Then again, peace takes both the inspiring acts of personal and political courage on the part of the combatants, and also the dedication, commitment and wisdom of troubleshooters like Martti Ahtisaari to help them translate their best intentions into working political arrangements.