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Every aspiring beauty-pageant queen knows what to say when asked what she wants most: "World peace." World peace is at least nominally what we all want most. But evidently, we are not very good at making it. The modern peace movement is almost 200 years old; its origins can be traced to the period that followed the devastating wars of the Napoleonic era in Europe. In those two centuries, peace movements have had little discernible impact on world events, and what effect they have had has often been bad: the European peace and disarmament movement of the 1930s, for example, greatly facilitated Hitler's plans for a war of revenge. For all the good they have done, those well-intentioned souls who have sought to achieve world peace through the organization of committees, the signing of petitions, the holding of rallies, and the promotion of international treaties might just as well have stayed home.
Jay Nordlinger's Peace, They Say, an eminently readable history of the Nobel Peace Prize, reveals the embarrassing lack of a detectable connection between the work of peace activists and actual peace. Nordlinger, an editor at the conservative National Review, gleefully mocks generations of Norwegian susceptibility to the once admired but now ludicrous ideas that inspired the world's peace movements: the fad for arbitration that figures such as William Jennings Bryan advocated in the decades before World War I; the argument of the economist and British parliamentarian Sir Norman Angell that war's economic irrationality would prevent twentieth-century wars; the naive hope vested in the League of Nations; the childish confidence that the Kellogg-Briand Pact, that noble 1928 treaty to outlaw war, would actually change things; the belief in "moral equivalence," which held that the best way to end the Cold War was to somehow split the difference between the East and the West; and the push for a "nuclear freeze" in the 1980s, whose proponents claimed that unless U.S. President Ronald Reagan's missile defense plans were stopped, the world would be doomed to a ruinous war. Nordlinger portrays the advocates of these positions at the height of their fleeting glory, as the Nobel Prize committee, in full accordance with what was then thought to be wisdom, gave solemn benediction to their ideas.