It was clear that the Nobel committee would not be able to get around the issue of nuclear weapons this year. Not when North Korea is testing long-range missiles that can transport nuclear warheads halfway around the globe. Not when US President Donald Trump responds by pouring oil on the fire and threatening Pyongyang with total destruction. Not when the painstakingly negotiated Iran nuclear deal is looking increasingly fragile because that same president doesn't like it, even if he can't articulate exactly why. Now more than ever, the issue of nuclear weapons is at the forefront of global society.
Favorites for this year's prize were those involved in the Iran nuclear deal – Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, for example, or EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. But such a choice was not without flaws. The nuclear deal has contributed greatly to global stability, even if some ideologues refuse to acknowledge it. But Zarif belongs to a regime under which torture, illegal jailings and executions are part of everyday reality.
Realpolitik over vision
Giving the nod instead to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is the less problematic choice, and the right one. The prize is going to an international alliance of activists dedicated to global nuclear disarmament. And they've already got some successes to show for their efforts. It was in large part due to pressure from ICAN activists that 122 nations backed a UN treaty to ban and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.
However, a world free of nuclear weapons, as was the stated dream of 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, remains a distant goal. And not just because of politicians like Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump who continue to build their arsenals, but also because there are too many states who share the ambivalence of the German government – even if Germany, for good reason, does not have any nuclear weapons. That ambivalence was evident in the German government's congratulatory statement. "The federal government supports the goal of a world without nuclear weapons," a government spokeswoman said, adding that Berlin nonetheless stands by its rejection of the UN treaty to ban such weapons in favor of the concept of nuclear deterrence. Instead of being visionary, that sounds a lot like Realpolitik.
ICAN General Secretary Beatrice Finh is much more unequivocal. "Is it acceptable to kill hundreds of thousands of people, or not? If not, then nuclear weapons must be banned," she said. This is the bar by which the world's leading politicians should be measured – and not just in remembrance of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but in the desire to avoid any future victims.