Setting the Agenda: Exporting Norwegian norms through the Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Peace Prize.

By Maren Anderson Johnson, M.A. in Scandinavian Studies

For the second year in a row, the consortium of Norwegian colleges in the Midwest have welcomed a University of Washington student to join a weekend of engagement, speeches, discussions around the ideas, norms and principles of the Nobel Peace Prize. The University of Washington sent Maren Anderson Johnson to Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minn., sponsored by a gift to the Department of Scandinavian Studies administered by Chair, Jan Sjåvik. Maureen Reed and Frankie Shackelford were instrumental in including the University of Washington among a distinguished group of Norwegian colleges. Her essay can be read in its entirety online at

International media erupted when the Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced in October 2009 that newly elected President Barack Obama was the recipient for the prize, which is revered as one of the world’s most prestigious. The fury of posts on social media sites, articles from international newspapers and general attitudes of “dumbfoundedness” all centered around one central question: what are the criteria used by the Nobel Peace Prize committee that deem an individual deserving of such a high prize?

When this question was asked in conjunction with President Obama’s award, this question seemed to suggest that many deemed President Obama unqualified to receive this prize. Many argued that he had not produced results for the high promises he made on the campaign trail, but there had not been any tangible results of these goals for his presidency.

International commentary and analysis of the Obama Peace Prize failed to execute one final step to garner a better understanding of this choice; few asked the members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee why they chose Obama. Criticism centered around holding Obama to the norms, values and attitudes of global politics, a system where results are the linchpin. Norway, however, does not uphold these international norms, which makes awarding the Peace Prize a unique moment for Norway to disseminate its norms and international agenda, which often differs from mainstream international ideas. The Peace Prize fosters new attitudes and norms around international issues such as human rights, ecology and peace.

In his will, Alfred Nobel left no explanation for why he selected Norway to house the Peace Prize while Stockholm served as the home for the other five prizes. Nobel believed a recipient should be someone who: “in the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” But Nobel was fortuitous in giving the Peace Prize to Norway since the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905 is one of the few peaceful separations in history. In the modern era of the nation-state, Norway has sculpted itself as a leader and innovator in peace and conflict resolution, making Oslo the natural home for the annual prize.

The aftershocks of the Obama Peace Prize resulted in study into the guidelines required for someone to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. There are three important observations to note in regard to this established criterion. First, the process of constructing the Nobel Peace Prize selection committee is unique. Five individuals sit on the committee and all are appointed by the Norwegian parliament, Stortinget, for six-year terms. Most notably, the composition of the committee should loosely reflect the representation of the political parties in the Storting, which means that the members of the committee mirror the political climate in Norway.

This leads to a second important observation; the members of the Nobel Committee are political appointees, which means their membership on the committee is highly political as are the agendas they bring to the table when selecting the year’s nominee.

Third, since the mission or guiding criteria for the Nobel Committee is fairly boundless, Nobel did not discriminate about the merger of politics and the prize. Norway’s unique social and political policies and norms make the relationship between politics and the Peace Prize even more complicated. As a country with 4.8 million inhabitants and a thriving social democracy, Norway’s political system has been characterized by some as an anomaly because of their progressive stances on social welfare and the environment.

Norway has a history of peace, of progressive norms and the Peace Prize is a tool for them to export or present these norms to the international community. By studying the mission of the Nobel Peace Prize committee as outlined by Alfred Nobel, the process of composing the committee, its members and some of the universal social norms of the Norwegian state provides a base to deepen the study of the Peace Prize as a vehicle of international prominence for Norway.

The Nobel Committee searches for candidates who espouse values similar to Norway in order to promote norms of ecological protection, human rights, democracy and peace and become ambassadors of peace and goodness for mankind.

After the Nobel Committee announced that Obama was the 2009 recipient of the prize, the U.K.’s leading newspaper The Guardian published an article examining Norway’s approach of evaluating and selecting Peace Prize candidates. Gwadlys Fouché writes, “This… shows the committee’s determination to have a major impact on international affairs and political processes.” Fouché highlights a key component of the Nobel Committee’s selection process—agenda setting. As the world annually turns toward Oslo for the announcement of the year’s recipient, this is the chance for Norway to insert itself as a central figure in international dialog and highlight issues, values and norms they deem important for the international community.

Maren Anderson Johnson is a first-year Ph.D. student and teaching assistant for first-year Norwegian in the Scandinavian Studies Department at the University of Washington. She is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University and also earned her M.A. at the University of Washington in Scandinavian Languages and Literature.

This article originally appeared in the Mar. 9, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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