More on that silly Peace Prize

More on that silly Peace Prize

Alex Massie has already offered an incisive takedown of the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s peace prize to the European Union, but I can’t resist the temptation to offer a few comments myself. 

First, who exactly gets the award? Do all the citizens of the EU get partial credit? Only full-time employees of the EU Commission? Will I be soon be reading resumes from EU applicants for admission to Harvard, each of them listing "Winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize" among their accomplishments?

Second, who gets to accept the award and make the usual platitudinous speech? EU Council President Herman von Rompuy? Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton? What about EU Commission President Juan Manuel Barosso? All three? I’m sure Tony Blair is already working on his speech, in the hope that maybe he can somehow wrangle his way onto the podium. It would of course be the height of irony if the peace prize announcement raised tensions within the EU, either due to wrangling over who got the spotlight or irritation over what they said. Stay tuned.

Third, this year’s award is essentially aspirational, in the same way that the Committee’s decision to award the 2009 prize to President Obama was really a hope for the future rather than a reward for past accomplishment. The EU has done more for peace than Obama had at the time he got the award (or since, to be honest), but that’s not why it got the prize this year. Instead, the Committee sought to remind Europeans of the benefits of unity at a moment when the prolonged eurocrisis threatens the entire European project. The Committee was telling European leaders: "Please don’t make this award look stupid by letting the euro collapse and allowing nationalism to reassert itself in dangerous ways: You’ll look really bad, and so will we." A laudable goal, perhaps, but I rather doubt that this award is going to affect the calculations or behavior of the bankers and politicians who hold Europe’s future in their hands.

Fourth, the people who should be really ticked off by this award are all the organizations and individuals around the world who have worked tirelessly for peace on a daily basis, often for little reward and at considerable risk to themselves. You can get rich working for defense contractors and can enjoy a comfortable life working for hawkish think tanks, but hardly anyone becomes rich and powerful lobbying for peace. There are literally scores of such grassroots movements in conflict-torn countries around the world, motivated solely by deep-seated moral conviction. The EU has been a positive force in European affairs, but working in the Brussels bureaucracy is a pretty comfortable gig compared to leading demonstrations against a dictator or trying to promote negotiations in some bitter civil conflict. Or what about giving the award to peace theorist Gene Sharp, whose insightful writings on non-violent resistance helped inspire and guide the Arab spring? This year’s award was thus a missed opportunity to shine a light on those individuals and groups whose example might inspire the rest of us.

Lastly, the main justificaiton for the award is the EU’s contribution to building peace in Europe, a continent that had been torn by war for centuries. Fair enough, but it "didn’t do it alone." The EU is one of the reasons why European politics turned peaceful after 1945, but military factors and security institutions mattered at least as much if not more. To be specific, war in Europe was discouraged by Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe and American domination of NATO, and peace was further enhanced by each side’s understandable fear of nuclear war. To put it bluntly: France, Germany, Poland, etc., weren’t going to fight each other anymore because the United States and Soviet Union wouldn’t let them. And a big reason the two superpowers behaved cautiously and reined in their allies was their perennial fear that a conflict in Europe would escalate to a suicidal nuclear war. Not exactly a noble (or Nobel) motive for peace, perhaps, but an effective one.

Indeed, the artificial stability imposed by the Cold War order was one of the background conditions that helped make the European Union possible. Insightful statesmanship and adroit politicking played important roles as well, of course, and the emergence of all-European institutions has surely helped bind the continent together in valuable ways. I’d even argue that the conditions attached to EU membership played a key role in smoothing Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy following communism’s demise. But if you want to understand why there’s been no war in Europe since 1945, you’d want to give as much credit to NATO and nuclear deterrence as you would to the EU itself.

Somehow, I don’t think the Nobel Committee will award a peace prize to the bomb or to a military alliance. But it wouldn’t be any sillier than the award they just gave.