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The Nobel Prizes Are Just Scandinavian Cultural Imperialism

Bob Dylan’s win shows that the purpose of the Nobel Prize these days is to convey instructions to the people of the world from their Norwegian betters.


I have long held the thesis that the Nobel prizes have turned into a form of Scandinavian cultural imperialism. Since they’re Scandinavian, it’s a new, passive-aggressive kind of imperialism.

So I was not surprised to see the Swedes get into a snit about Bob Dylan being “impolite and arrogant” for failing to say anything to acknowledge their great generosity and condescension in awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature for “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

I’m not a big fan of Bob Dylan. Having grown up in the 1980s, I associate him—perhaps unfairly, I’ll grant you—with washed-up ex-hippies trying to relive their glory days. Be that as it may, Dylan has had a long and varied career and is regarded as something of a venerable figure by other American musicians. He does not need the approval of a committee of Scandinavian intellectuals to confer on him some kind of higher status, and I don’t see that he owes them anything for an award he never sought. As for arrogance, I might give the example of a bunch of Swedes telling Americans what their “song tradition” is.

But that’s the larger pattern of the Nobels these days, at least for the prizes awarded outside the hard sciences. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the Peace Prize, is even worse. This year, for example, they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the president of Colombia for negotiating a peace agreement with far-left FARC terrorists who have plagued his country for five decades. Five days before the award was announced, the people of Colombia had rejected the deal in a referendum because they regarded it as too generous to the members of FARC.

But no matter, the chairwoman of the Norwegian committee plowed on undeterred:

She said she hoped that awarding the prize to Mr. Santos would act as a spur for a future agreement. “The committee hopes that the peace prize will give him strength to succeed in this demanding task,” she said. “Further, it is the committee’s hope that in the years to come, the Colombian people will reap the fruits of the reconciliation process.”

That’s what the Nobel Peace Prize is about these days: “the committee’s hope.”

Long ago, the Peace Prize turned from a recognition of actual peace accords or peace initiatives and into a form of wishful thinking meant to secure the success of troubled peace agreements. That was the rationale behind the 1994 Peace Prize for Yasser Arafat, which was supposed to flatter him into standing by his commitments in the Oslo Accords. It didn’t work.

But actually achieving peace is not what the prize is about. The prize is meant to convey instructions to the people of the world from their Norwegian betters. That was the meaning of the Colombian Nobel: to nudge Colombian voters into approving a peace agreement that the Norwegians found to be sufficient for their security.

This also explains the Nobel Peace Prize given to Barack Obama. It wasn’t about anything he’d done as president, because he hadn’t done anything yet. Its purpose was to instruct him to keep his promises to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It worked about as well as all the other attempts at Scandinavian cultural imperialism. Under Obama, we’re still involved in those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’ve added to our list Libya, Syria, and now Yemen. Not to mention all those drone strikes in Pakistan and Somalia. I’m sure they’re very disappointed. Why didn’t the president of the United States do what the Norwegians wanted him to do?

It’s perfectly understandable for small powers to use whatever tools they have at their disposal, including economic and cultural influence, to promote their vision for a better world. But it’s also understandable if the rest of us stop revering it as the ultimate in high-minded neutrality and start viewing it as impolite and arrogant.