Archie Bland: The crass pomposity of the Nobel Peace Prize

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It doesn't sound terribly controversial, the Nobel Peace Prize. It's for people who make peace. Everyone likes peace.

It's rarely as simple as that, though. This year was a case in point. When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was announced as one of the three women who would share the prize, the news might have been warmly received in the West; in Liberia itself, though, the reaction was a little different. "Shocked response in Monrovia to Johnson Sirleaf's Nobel prize," our Africa correspondent Dan Howden tweeted from the country's capital. "There are serious misgivings about Ma Ellen here."

For the news from Liberia, torn apart by a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, whilst better than it was, is not all good. Johnson Sirleaf actually backed the warlord Charles Taylor before turning peacemaker. For all her achievements, she is seen as having failed to really grapple with corruption and millions of her people still live in poverty.

So why the award? Because, of course, those behind the decision want to do something. Plainly there's a special grandeur attached to the peace committee – I bet the people who sit on it love to lord it over their colleagues stuck with boring old economics and chemistry. But with it comes the fraught sense that this is a prize with the potential to fix things.

In this case, the aim is presumably to help Johnson Sirleaf over the line in the election for which first-round results were due overnight – a controversial and possibly counterproductive intervention, but by no means unique. Barack Obama got the prize (somewhat to his irritation) before he'd had a chance to earn it, mostly because Nobel wanted to declare a preference for a certain kind of American politics. And there are countless examples of the prize being given to shady characters who seem to have reformed, from Henry Kissinger to Yasser Arafat. That is, after all, a far more compelling tale than some permanent saint who has never stepped out of line.

This sense of shaping things exists to some extent in the other prizes, but they don't suffer from the pomposity of peace: the choice of Tomas Transtromer, the Swedish poet, for the literature gong was not exactly a crowd pleaser. And if they get it wrong, it just matters less.

If the peace committee, on the other hand, is going to give its bauble to people fighting for office – a move one suspects it would never dare make in a European or American context – it better be ready for the consequences. It's hard to believe that another proclamation from Oslo is going to fix things if Johnson Sirleaf rides their coattails back to power – and then fails.