Nobel Seminars Launch with Insider View of the Nobel Peace Prize

February 14, 2023
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Dr. Asle Toje, deputy leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee speaks into a microphone

With almost 13,000 nuclear warheads in the world today, preventing their use is the most pressing peace issue of our time and a fitting topic for Soka University of America’s inaugural Nobel Seminar.

The Nobel Seminars, an important new partnership between SUA and the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, launched January 31 with “The Nobel Peace Prize: Can It Influence World Peace?” The wide-ranging discussion between Dr. Asle Toje, deputy leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and SUA Distinguished Adjunct Professor Alexander Harang, head of politics at No to Nuclear Weapons and former leader of the Norwegian Peace Association, highlighted the role of the annual prize on the world stage as well as that of each individual in promoting peace.

Although even a prize as illustrious as the Nobel cannot create peace, Dr. Toje said the global media attention the annual announcement in Oslo receives can be a thumb on the scale. “It is our chance to draw attention to the work of individuals and institutions towards peace,” Dr. Toje said.

Legacies of Promoting Peace

In welcoming guests to the SUA Athenaeum, SUA President Edward Feasel noted that the Nobel Seminars are building on Soka’s rich history of promoting peace. The father of Soka education, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, died in prison while being held for his opposition to the Second World War. His disciple, Jōsei Toda, was also imprisoned but survived, and in 1957 denounced nuclear weapons and called for their elimination. SUA founder Daisaku Ikeda has continued that call in his annual peace proposals.

Somewhat surprisingly, Dr. Toje told the audience that his own path differed from that of many in the peace movement. With a background in war studies, he once defended nuclear weapons as a means to create stability during the Cold War. That position changed over time.

“I began to realize that in a multipolar world it will become increasingly difficult to avoid the first use of nuclear weapons. And once nuclear weapons have been used we’re in uncharted territory, uncharted territory that could lead to the end of civilization,” said Dr. Toje, who was previously research director at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, a lecturer and professor at numerous universities, and is the author of The European Union as a Small Power: After the Post-Cold War.

Each year, the five-member Nobel Committee evaluates hundreds of individuals and organizations to determine the laureate—a task Dr. Toje admitted comes with pressure. Alfred Nobel’s criteria for the prize, one of five awards he endowed with the fortune he’d made as an inventor with more than 350 patents, including one for dynamite, were that recipients were to be chosen from among three groups: those who work for fraternity among nations, the reduction or abolishment of standing armies, and those who promulgate the spreading of peace. Dr. Toje said the prize has most frequently been awarded to those working toward disarmament.

Noting that many people say the world is more at risk than ever of a nuclear war, Prof. Harang—who’d introduced his fellow Norwegian as a national treasure and the embodiment of SUA’s founding values of wisdom, courage, and compassion—asked what efforts and actions the committee looks toward as most likely to increase security.

Dr. Toje agreed that following the Cold War, countries have “fallen back into great power rivalry and great power conflict.” To prevent catastrophes around the world, Dr. Toje said a pledge of no first use is essential. The next step is the process of arms reduction. “I think that any sane person would agree that even if you subscribe to the idea that great powers need to have a weapon of such destruction … there are far too many nuclear weapons in existence today,” he said. “There is no need to have a planet-destroying capacity.”

By regularly turning the world’s attention toward the topic of nuclear disarmament, Dr. Toje said the Peace Prize sends a powerful message. “I like to think that the anti-nuclear movement has been indispensable in creating our greatest shield against nuclear war. And that is the nuclear taboo,” he said. “The fact that that has not yet happened does not dampen our spirits. And I think in the years to come the Nobel Peace Prize will continue to be a thorn in the side of the powerful, of the authoritarians, and a beacon of hope for those who are working towards a more peaceful world, a world where each nation and each country, and each individual can live in prosperity and harmony and peace.”

Voices of Reason

Prior to the event, Dr. Toje met with students in Prof. Harang’s learning cluster on the Nobel Peace Prize, who offered their own nominations for this year’s prize. Dr. Toje said he found their choices impressive enough to voice on behalf of SUA to the committee.

“I’ve taught at universities around the world, and the caliber of your students is magnificent,” he said. “And the caliber has very much to do with the way people are educated at this university, which is distinct. There is an idea, a philosophy driving this university, and at the core of the philosophy is peace. Peace within, peace without.”

Dr. Toje encouraged everyone in the audience to recognize their own role in promoting peace, regardless of what they do in the world. Noting that during the Cuban missile crisis, as President John F. Kennedy was pressured by many to launch a nuclear weapon, it was the lone voice of his brother, Robert Kennedy, that stopped him.

Even in casual conversations with friends, Dr. Toje urged audience members, “be an advocate for the course of peace and to take your reasonings and your logic, the better angels of our nature, as President Lincoln famously called it, and let that be your guiding star, because we don’t know who of you will be the one to save the world.”

Dr. Toje speaks to an audience from a podium
Watch the full discussion here.