Every October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee decides the six people or organizations who have contributed the most to society that year, whether that be through science, literature, or diplomacy. Though faces like Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela usually grace the winners list of the Nobel Peace Prize, one nominated name stands out this year: President Donald Trump. In February, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (possibly) nominated Trump for his work in bringing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to the table in two historic summits. Many applaud the recognition, and many are appalled at the idea of Trump having an award even Gandhi did not win. If Trump is awarded in October, he would be the fourth sitting US President to win, after Barrack Obama, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt. Is it right for people to laugh at his candidacy or does he truly deserve this award? A comparison with Trump’s peers might reveal an answer.
The recent developments between the United States and North Korea are nothing short of extraordinary; it was only a year ago that Trump was threatening “fire and fury” while Korean missiles were flying over Japan. A situation that Obama called Trump’s “greatest challenge” has turned into one of promise. Following the 2018 Singapore summit, where Trump became the first sitting US President to meet with a North Korean leader, the leaders of both countries signed a statement committing to bring denuclearization to the Korean peninsula, an important first step. However, critics point to the persistence of the North Korean nuclear program and saber-rattling as a failure of Trump’s negotiations, saying that Kim only used the negotiations to legitimize himself on the world stage. Nevertheless, Trump’s approach to the North Korea problem, and especially his approach to Kim Jong-Un personally, represents a departure from policy that has only served to worsen, or at the very least prolong, nuclear crisis; Trump can be seen as a significant influence in ending one of the most dangerous security problems in the world.
When Alfred Nobel established the peace prize, he specified that it should go to “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” This sentence is what guides the Nobel Committee today. Many past winners have won for their work in medical care during war, work on peace treaties and summits, and the eradication of global racism.
Given these loose criteria, Trump may have a strong claim. He has attempted to solve a festering crisis in nuclear proliferation by a rouge state. He became the first American president to sit down with a North Korea leader and establish a foundation for future progress. He may have even stabilized a situation heading towards war. While light on concrete achievements in denuclearization, Trump has surely done much towards promoting the “fraternity between nations” and “the promotion of peace congresses.”
However, critics say that Trump’s concurrent actions in other parts of the world disqualify him from the award. Past winners have worked on preventing sexual violence, nuclear proliferation, and solving global climate change. Trump, on the other hand, has a dubious history with sexual assault, has tried to dismantle the agreements preventing Iranian nuclearization, and has confirmed US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Military involvement in Syria under the Trump administration, while aiming for peace, has only continued war in a broken country. Further, the extent to which the North Korea crisis bordered on war, some say, was due to posturing and antagonization by Trump himself. The summits also lack a final conclusion or achievement, which some regard as another knock against Trump’s candidacy. Trump’s claim to the Nobel Prize may extend past two summits to encompass his entire influence on world politics.
However, any US President will face inherent contradictions in a claim for the Peace Prize. They run the country with the most powerful military on Earth that is often used to combat terrorism and other threats. Other policies should not immediately prevent Trump, or any other president, from the award if they deserve it. Thus, it makes sense to compare Trump’s claim to the award against the other presidents who have won.
The most recent US president to win a Nobel Peace Prize was Obama in 2009, only months after taking office. The Nobel Committee said their decision was based on “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples…[attaching] special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” In essence, Obama’s contribution was fostering a global climate of conciliation and global responsibility. If the only criterion is rhetoric, then Trump may indeed deserve a Nobel Prize. He has actively sought to transform his vision of a peaceful, united, and non-nuclear Korea into a reality. By this point, Trump may have even more on his Nobel resume than Obama did when he won.
Many, including the Nobel secretary and Obama himself, regard his award as extremely premature; Obama lacked any tangible achievement in denuclearization or otherwise. Is it fair, then, to weigh Trump’s claim on criteria that many agreed were misguided? Probably not, but the point still stands that Trump’s claim is at least as strong as Obama’s, even though Obama is hailed as a protector of peace by the same people who dislike Trump.
The question then becomes how Trump’s claim compares to the two other (slightly less controversial) winning presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt, earning the award for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War, became the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Woodrow Wilson took the lead in forming the post-World War I international order via his Fourteen Points, of which the League of Nations was one. These two men worked tirelessly to prevent war and achieved significant results. Wilson even gave his life to the cause of peace, suffering a stroke in part caused by extreme stress placed on his body during negotiations in Europe.
Like Trump, both of these men’s claims also suffered from some contradictions in policy. Many claimed Theodore Roosevelt did not deserve his award because of his part in the Philippine-American War and policy of “big stick” diplomacy. Roosevelt, a former colonel in the Army, was famously militaristic. The committee was undecided on Wilson’s candidacy as well, electing to defer the 1919 award for an entire year. Wilson’s suspension of civil rights at home during the war and failure to deliver the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles created intense division in the Nobel Committee. Nevertheless, the Committee eventually decided Wilson was worthy of the award, but not before he had his stroke and was unable to receive his award personally. Relevant to Trump, it was decided that some contradictory policy positions did not discredit their claims to the peace prize for the important and significant work they had done. In contrast to the other two, Trump has never been involved in a war or engaged significantly in a new military venture, but he is still not without his faults. Though perhaps Trump has not successfully brought peace to Korea, let alone ended a world war, precedent set by Wilson and Roosevelt shows that his claim should not be immediately dismissed for other actions taken as president either.
In all, does Trump deserved a Nobel Peace Prize? Polls suggest at least 42% of Americans think he does. However, it is the Nobel Committee who ultimately decides. Based on previous outcomes for US Presidents, it seems that Trump has a fairly strong claim, but many still doubt that he will win. Obama’s award stands out in stark contrast to Trump’s candidacy; at that time, it was rhetoric that was most important. Trump does not speak like a diplomat and certainly does not fall in line with many of the mainstream positions held by human rights advocates. Is appearance just as important as actions? Is Trump held back, rightfully or not, by the way he conducts himself?
On the other hand, actions alone have historically not dictated the winner; despite being considered a main contender, Ronald Reagan did not win for his work with the USSR on nuclear disarmament (though Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev accepted the award that year). Maybe it was Reagan’s own saber-rattling, akin to Trump’s, that ultimately ended his candidacy. Whatever variables may be relevant behind the scenes in Norway, the ultimate victory for Trump and the world is a successful conclusion to the work he has started. A Nobel Prize would hopefully just become a footnote to the accomplishment of peace in Korea for the first time six decades.
Banner image courtesy of Dan Scavino Jr. via Wikimedia Images, © 2018, some rights reserved