OSLO (Reuters) - When Thorbjoern Jagland became Norway's Nobel panel chairman he had a mission: to give the Peace Prize a more global heft, after an era in which laureates included a tree campaigner and a micro-loan pioneer.
Since the former prime minister took over in 2009, the five-member committee has made controversial choices -- Barack Obama, months after he became U.S. president, and Liu Xiaobo, a jailed Chinese dissident whose selection angered Beijing.
"Peace is not created by uncontroversial standpoints or by people with small ambitions," Jagland wrote in the newspaper Aftenposten this week.
"Peace is created by the will to change something, by the combination of realpolitik and idealism. Obama is a realistic politician with an idealistic drive. Liu Xiaobo is an idealist with an understanding of the framework of realpolitik."
Last month, Jagland told Aftenposten: "The prize has a power in itself, it can accelerate change ... (Liu's) prize is one of the most important ever given, perhaps the most important."
Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the PRIO peace research institute in Oslo, told Reuters Jagland's vision was "nothing less than using the Nobel Peace Prize to change global developments."
"In the period just before Jagland, we had winners from various corners of the world but few with that potential."
Jagland has faced criticism that a human rights activist like Liu is not necessarily in the business of promoting peace, the goal laid down by Alfred Nobel.
Jagland counters that human rights and democracy provide the preconditions for sustaining peace. That kind of argument only confirms the suspicions of China's communist leaders.
"By enshrining a convict, the committee pulled the old trick of trying to impose the Western values and political system on the rest of the world," China's state news agency Xinhua wrote in a commentary Wednesday.
"As criticism piles in from China and elsewhere, Jagland appears more and more enthusiastic about Liu," said Harpviken.
"He sees that we are at a stage when U.S. supremacy is coming to an end ... and an emerging China is offering different values on how the world should be run, without human rights and democracy."
Jagland, 61, a veteran politician from Norway's centre-left Labour Party, also holds the country's most prestigious foreign post as the head of the European Council, a human rights body that includes a number of former Soviet republics.
But he has a reputation for undiplomatic bluntness.
"Young Labour activists used to say that they liked his vision but when he appeared on television their hands would get sweaty -- you just never knew what he would say," said Frank Aarebrot, professor of political science at Bergen University.
"He has Kennedy-esque visionary qualities but without the speechwriters."
Jagland famously blundered as foreign minister in 2001, when he called Gabon's president Omar Bongo "Bongo from Congo," just after a state visit by the late African leader.
But perhaps his biggest mistake, which cost him the prime minister's post, was when he declared that unless Labour won as many votes in the 1997 general election as it had four years earlier, he would quit the government.
Labour won the election with about 35 percent of the vote, just short of Jagland's 36.9 percent target, giving a coalition of centre-right parties the chance to rule.
"He still has a chip on his shoulder from that, but you also get a feeling he has come into his own in the Nobel committee, where he feels independent and untouchable," Aarebrot said.
Editing by Andrew Roche