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Nobel Peace Prize as warning

Nobel Peace Prize as warning

I’d like to be able to boast about having included the European Union on my "Handicapping the Nobel Peace Prize" list earlier this week, but given that I put it in the longshot category alongside WikiLeaks and Willie Nelson, I can’t really claim to be too prescient. (There’s always next year, Willie!)

My colleague Dan Drezner complains,  "It’s for things the EU did in the past.  In contrast, Obama’s peace prize was suggestive of things he would do in the future.  There’s no consistency." But there hasn’t really been a clear or consistent set of criteria for winning the prize for quite some time. 

Alfred Nobel’s will specified that the prize should be given to "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” But since the 1960s, the prize has just as often been given to individuals like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Andrei Sakharov, or Liu Xiaobo, who were recognized primarily for advancing human rights or general welfare within a particular country.

So often a large part of the interpretation for any year’s prize is devoted not just to why the person or insitution deserved to win, but to what message the prize committee was looking to send. With Al Gore and IPCC, it was to highlight climate change. With Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman, it was to highlight women’s rights struggles around the world. With Barack Obama, it was to say, "Thank God George Bush isn’t president anymore."

I think the most generous interpretation of this year’s award is that it’s a reminder to euroskeptics of what the continent looked like in the half century before the European integration project kicked off.  As chairman Thorbjorn Jagland put it, “The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a 70-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today, war between Germany and France is unthinkable.” He continued: “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating. Therefore, we should focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.”

(I can’t claim any expertise on Norwegian politics, but I would also be curious where the members of the comittee stand on the debate over membership in the E.U. The Labour and Conservative parties, which are generally pro-European, control three of the five seats on the committee. )

Jagland’s argument is a reasonable one. But as Ronald Krebs pointed out in a 2009 FP piece, the prize often carries unintended consequences for winners. For dissidents like Liu, Sakharov, and Aung San Suu Kyi, it often encourages autocratic governments to crack down further. For powerful leaders, it provides a near-impossible standard to live up to. Obama, for one, likely wishes his critics on both the right and left didn’t have the prize to bring out as a punchline every time they attack his foreign policy.

It would be nice to think the Nobel will encourage European leaders to remember the positive accomplishments of integration along with its obvious drawbacks. But it seems just as likely to only throw more fuel on an already combustible situation.