The Nobel’s subtext

Maybe I’m overthinking it, but a lot of people seem to be missing a key message in yesterday’s Nobel Peace Prize award for the World Food Program. The Nobel Committee makes it pretty clear in the first sentence: “The need for international solidarity and multilateral cooperation is more conspicuous than ever.”

The prize is for the life-saving work of the WFP, but it’s equally an vindication of the UN system and international cooperation more broadly. I see the endorsement of the WFP as a validation of the institutions which Trump’s #AmericaFirst agenda has put in grave jeopardy; a rebuttal to the international assault on multilateral institutions, cooperation, and humanitarian cooperation.

If the Nobel committee had chosen the World Health Organization, everyone would know exactly what message they were sending to Trump and the USA. The WHO would be a good candidate because it’s dealing with the global pandemic, which is, obviously the biggest and most devastating threat to the world right now. But if the Nobel committee chose WHO, it would also be rebutting the US, which has been actively attacking the WHO, is withholding funding and is making moves to withdraw from the organization.

Choosing WFP is more interesting than it might seem at first because the World Food Program is one of the few UN agencies that the Trump Administration has continued to support. The US is the largest donor to the WFP and has continued in recent years despite Trump’s aggressive attempts to cut foreign aid and especially aid to multilateral institutions.

This is in no small part because the WFP has been led by Americans since 1992 (historical context provided from Catherine Bertini, former head of WFP). David Beasley if the current head of the WFP and he comes to the job with strong right-wing bona fides: former Governor of South Carolina, conservative Christian, Trump supporter. Beasley has been very successful in maintaining good relations with the US and spent a lot of time at the White House early in the Trump Administration apparently connecting early and well with Ivanka.

In the award, the Nobel Committee “wishes to turn the eyes of the world towards the millions of people who suffer from or face the threat of hunger”. This is right and good. But by awarding the WFP, the Nobel Committee is also turning the eyes of the world towards the multilateral institutional response to the suffering, and implicitly arguing for it’s importance. And pointing to the successful and continued US engagement in international cooperation. On the one hand, it’s a rebuke of Trump’s America First agenda. On the other, it’s also an olive branch to recognize one of the only multilateral agencies in the UN system that the Trump Administration has supported, and praising that example.

I have colleagues who have described the award as uninspired and forgettable. And I understand exactly why they think this. Existing institutions aren’t exciting and new. They aren’t usually innovative (although WFP has done a lot to innovate in pursuing its mission). They are bureaucracies, and sometimes seem inefficient and slow.

This is a problem for our country and for the world. Because we come to rely on, then take for granted, then neglect the foundations and institutions that uphold society. We need, but forget, the stabilizing institutions that help mediate interests, build consensus and facilitate joint action. In the last few decades, we’ve come to fixate obsessively on innovation, on disruption, on hacking. But all that dynamism occurs on a substrate of stability, order, peace. And we’ve neglected the walls to focus on the dazzling art that hangs upon them.

That’s what I see in this Nobel Peace Prize.

  • this essay has been edited from the original version.

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