Nobel Insights: Individuals, Not Prizes, Forge Path to Peace

April 24, 2024
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Dr. Asle Toje listens to Dr. Ivana Nikolić Hughes speak as Dr. William Potter looks on during the Nobel Seminars

“Prizes don’t create peace. Individuals create peace,” said Dr. Asle Toje on the first day of the Soka University of America Nobel Seminars, answering one of the key questions posed during a series of events on campus exploring the most pressing peace issues of our time.

As part of SUA’s partnership with the Nobel Institute, Toje, deputy leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, visited campus for the second consecutive year to discuss how ordinary people can work for peace and whether the Peace Prize contributes to the fight for peace in the world. In addition to participating in the two central events of the Nobel Seminars, “Creating Peace in Times of War” on March 29 and “Can a Peace Prize Prevent Nuclear War?” on March 30, Toje engaged with students, faculty, and staff throughout the week, attending a total of 12 meetings and events. As a unique opportunity to interact with a leading figure in the field of peace, the Nobel Seminars enriched the campus community’s understanding and encouraged discussion on the critical issues of peace, justice, and global security.

“Both events felt like filling empty glasses with hope for the future,” said Daiki Katsukawa ’26, whose concentration is International Studies. “In spite of the seriousness of the topics discussed, attending these events reaffirmed my belief that peace is achievable. The first step is to believe in peace—a step we must take, regardless of how complex the challenges we face may be.”

Opposing the Evil of Thinking Peace Is Not Possible

The first event in the Nobel Seminars was moderated by Emma Sherbine MA ’24 and featured Toje in conversation with Dr. Andrea Bartoli, executive adviser of the Soka Institute for Global Solutions, SUA Board of Trustees member, and president of the Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue. “This year’s theme could not be more timely, given the state of the world today,” said SUA Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Arch Asawa in his welcoming remarks.

Toje was realistic in his view of how far the Peace Prize can tip the scales in the right direction, noting that some prizes have been more successful than others in creating peace. While not all prizes have the same impact, Toje argued that their value transcends immediate political and social realities. “The prize also speaks to something that is frequently forgotten in political science, and that is the individual,” said Toje. “On this planet, one thing we all share is the desire to live. I think this is something that often gets forgotten when we get so caught up in structures that crush the individual underfoot.”

When the discussion turned to the role educational institutions like SUA can play in fostering champions of peace, Bartoli emphasized the importance of not being afraid of having deep roots and acknowledging that we are all the result of someone else calling us to life. “The deeper the roots, the larger the tree,” said Bartoli. “There is a beautiful sense that here, at SUA, there are Japanese roots, there are American roots, and there are also roots that every single student is creating.”

Both speakers agreed that deep philosophical roots and strong conviction are critical today when peace has become an unwelcome guest in many parts of the world. Bartoli argued that the greatest challenge facing those working for peace is the widespread belief that it is impossible. Toje added that while it is always lovely to get together to discuss peace with like-minded individuals, the bravery needed to oppose the evil of thinking that peace is not possible is more in demand now than at any time in recent memory.

Speaking to the younger members in the audience, Toje apologized for the dangerous world his generation will bequeath to them. “It is a great challenge being passed to you, and I hope that you are able to connect what you learn at this university, and the university’s values,” said Toje. “It’s a call to peace.”

Acknowledging the severe challenges younger generations will face in the future, Toje said that this is precisely the moment when we must be relentlessly positive. He added that though it may be easy to despair when examining the state of the world, we need to deepen our conviction that our actions now matter and that we can achieve peace. “Maybe we should even be joyful,” he said, “that we have been given this task at a time when it actually matters.”

Can Peace Prizes Tip the Scale Toward Disarmament?

Dr. Asle Toje speaks at the podium while Dr. Ivana Nikolić Hughes, Dr. William Potter, and the audience listen during the Nobel Seminars

If day one of the Nobel Seminar explored the most pressing peace issues of our time more generally, the next day’s event focused on the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity. Toje was joined by Dr. William Potter, founding director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and Dr. Ivana Nikolić Hughes, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, in exploring the topic of nuclear disarmament. The moderator of the event, former leader of the Norwegian Peace Association and SUA Distinguished Adjunct Professor Alexander Harang, set the stage, noting that the panelists would discuss nuclear disarmament and whether Peace Prizes awarded during the Atomic Age have mitigated the risk of nuclear war.

Potter said he believes it is unlikely a Peace Prize by itself can prevent the use of nuclear weapons as there are too many states with nuclear arsenals whose security policies emphasize the role of nuclear weapons. “Given the multiple means by which nuclear violence could arise, it would be presumptuous to assume that any action short of a complete elimination of nuclear weapons could prevent nuclear war,” said Potter.

Underscoring the unimaginable devastation nuclear war would wreak, Hughes said that today’s weapons threaten human civilization as we know it. Among other effects, enormous amounts of soot would enter the atmosphere, which would dramatically block sunlight from reaching earth. This, in turn, would lead to significant drops in temperature and widespread failure of agriculture and food production lasting many years, phenomena known as nuclear winter and nuclear famine. “More than five and a half billion people would die of starvation due to a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia in which they used just one-third of their current arsenals,” said Hughes.

Reiterating his call from the previous day’s event to remain stubbornly cheerful during such challenging times, Toje reminded the audience of the many different kinds of people who are working toward disarmament and peace in a variety of fields. “While some peacemakers are engaged in the corridors of power,” Toje said, “others are doing the noble work of telling their fellow man of this great danger we are living under.”

Toje reiterated how important it is to strengthen and expand the nuclear taboo. “This taboo needs to be maintained for each generation,” he said. “Each generation needs to be told about what horrendous weapons we have developed and the terrible consequences of their use: the potential to end civilization itself.” Although the world is moving in a dangerous direction, he encouraged everyone to try in their own way to spread the “gospel” of the nuclear taboo.

Reflecting on what she learned from the Nobel Seminars, Marina Inoue ’25, whose concentration is Social and Behavioral Sciences, said she still can’t believe she had a chance to learn from so many great figures at the same time. “Hearing the personal experiences and opinions of the speakers on certain topics was inspiring,” Inoue said. “I hope more students will take advantage of the events organized at SUA and work towards peace together.”