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Published on: October 12, 2012
The EU Gets a Prize and Takes the Cake

Move over, UNICEF. Make some room, Pugwash Conference, United Nations and IPCC. American Friends Service Committee, Doctors Without Borders, and International Committee of the Red Cross, you have a new colleague. The European Union is joining the ranks of organizations awarded the world’s most sententious and self-regarding accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize. After a period […]

Move over, UNICEF. Make some room, Pugwash Conference, United Nations and IPCC. American Friends Service Committee, Doctors Without Borders, and International Committee of the Red Cross, you have a new colleague. The European Union is joining the ranks of organizations awarded the world’s most sententious and self-regarding accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize.

After a period in which the five members of the Norwegian parliament responsible for choosing winners mostly awarded the Prize to people through whom they could express their dislike of George W. Bush (Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Mohammed El-Baradei, the IAEA and Barack Obama), the Nobel committee has decided to give the European Union a prize for sixty years of peace promotion in what used to be the most warlike part of the world.

You can quarrel with the timing of the award: thanks to the fiasco of the euro and the brutal incompetence with which Europe has set about managing the consequences, the EU today looks more like a war promotion organization than a peace making one. If the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn ever did take power in Greece, the stupidity and shortsightedness of EU policymaking would be the root cause.

But with the substance of the prize we have little quarrel. This isn’t the EU’s best year, but sixty years of promoting integration and peace among former foes is something the world can and should honor.

There are many this morning saying that NATO should have been at least co-awarded the Peace Prize, and that does seem fair. The EU would have been a lot less successful without the military alliance that binds Europe’s powers together and the American umbrella that NATO provides. And there is a precedent: the Nobel Committee awarded a Peace Prize to the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in 1988.

NATO deserves some encouragement and attention these days, but this is a day to celebrate the European Union. It isn’t the sole author of Europe’s peace by any means, but it has been the most successful international organization since World War II. For all its shortcomings, the EU has been an immense force promoting democracy and the rule of law. Not only did the prospect of EU membership help many ex-Soviet satellites recover their dignity and establish democratic government after the Cold War; the EU also played an tremendous role in helping Portugal, Greece, and Spain transition to democracy after fascist or military rule.

That’s worth a prize, and in a slow year for world peace there is nothing wrong with encouraging a longtime force for peace now fallen on tough times. Americans can also take some pride in this. It was strong pressure from the United States under the Marshall Plan (George Marshall got his Nobel in 1953) that induced Germany and France to launch the postwar economic cooperation that became the engine of European integration, and the United States has consistently supported the cause of European integration precisely because of our conviction that something like the EU would help prevent another great European war.

You can make a case that the two sides of George Marshall’s legacy, the European Union and NATO, representing the economic and the military integration of Europe, are the most successful exercise in foreign policy in American history. The policies that gave birth to these institutions also represent one of the most successful exercises of power by any great power in the history of the world.

The Peace Prize Committee no doubt wants to do more with this award than to celebrate the achievements of the past. It is trying to provide some encouragement and support for the EU at a time when the organization faces more challenges than it has done in many years. The European Union is in a world of hurt right now, and news of the prize will provide a badly needed boost in a Brussels that has gradually realized that it no longer knows what it is doing.

The biggest reason for this of course is the currency crisis. The euro mess is like a decomposing corpse in the living room of the European Union, making it impossible for either the residents or their neighbors to pretend that all is well. But the EU’s problems go beyond the euro; the basic assumptions of the European project are open to question these days in a way that hasn’t been true for some time.

Some of the wounds are self inflicted. The respectable press in Europe and the United States doesn’t like to say so too often or too loudly, but taken as a class Europe’s leaders are pompous, incompetent buffoons. (Of course there are some exceptions and very honorable ones. But the good ones are exceptions, not the rule.) Everything that is inadequate about the American Boomer elite is even worse among its European counterparts. As a group Europe’s 1968 generation of leaders and their heirs are even more corrupt, more narcissistic, more entitled, more narrow minded, more ideologically blinkered than our own deeply decadent political and media establishments over here. Europe’s elites also lack the virtues of America’s leadership groups: where is the European Steve Jobs?

A German friend once told me that he’d realized that Americans look at Europe the way Germans look at Italy: great food, great culture (in former times, not much new being produced today), lovely people, wonderful luxury products—but not serious. What he didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just Americans who think of Europe in this way.

The Europeans have made a bigger hash of their social insurance policies than we have, their immigration policy is a time bomb, their ideas about foreign policy and power are laughable, and their monetary incompetence will be held up to the wonder and scorn of future generations for centuries to come. They are almost as incompetent at constitution making as they are at currency organization. For generations EU leaders have boastfully compared themselves to the American founders; for generations they have failed to build an effective polity. Each new constitutional or treaty initiative creates a bigger mess: more inconsequential, ill-defined bureaucracies and legislative bodies, less public support, less effectiveness and transparency in governance.

No part of the world is more narcissistic than Europe. No one sings “We are the World” with more assurance and less doubt. Europe’s profound and unassailable inner conviction that it is ahead of the rest of the world, that world history must be interpreted through the lens of European experience, and that Europe’s today is the global tomorrow is rooted in its imperial past and racism, but the European establishment is if anything less capable of recognizing the corrupt roots and necessary limits of its worldview than Sarah Palin is able to understand the limits of her views of American exceptionalism. After centuries of experience with this curse and even after the Holocaust, most Europeans wouldn’t recognize anti-Semitism if it bit them on the leg—something it is very likely to do in the not too distant future.

Europe’s record of strategic failure partly flows from circumstance; the countries of the modern EU have lived out of the mainstream of power for more than 70 years. The west lived under the umbrella of American protection and the east followed orders from Moscow. The EU was building the biggest bubble of all: the post historical bubble. EU leaders mistook their own sheltered irrelevance for a new stage in world history and concluded that their mission was to remake the world in the image of the EU.

The crisis of the EU today reflects the bursting of this post-historical bubble. Europe has awakened from recent dreams of omnipotence (remember how Europe was going to lead the world to a brave new energy future?) and flattering reflections on American decline to see itself increasingly marginalized in the emerging power architecture of the 21st century. The monetary crisis has sharply reduced its influence in its neighborhood and beyond, and its repeated failure to develop effective governance structures is impossible to ignore.

Worse than the evidence of continuing external decline is the eruption of a complicated internal political crisis. This is not just the problem of the euro, though the enormously destructive consequences of that fiasco have gone far to discredit the European project and its leaders in the eyes of tens of millions of suddenly impoverished victims of Europe’s illusions. The problem that faces the EU today is the problem of nationalism: the sense of shared identity, interest and destiny that binds most European “tribes” into countries. From the beginning of the EU, the question of bringing its nation-states into a cosmopolitan federal union has vexed Europe at every turn.

The essence of Europe’s post-historical dream is that these “atavistic” nationalist feelings and loyalties can be brought into a single political entity. Instead of German, French, Italian, Spanish, British and Polish currencies, foreign policies, legal systems and so on, there can be one single European system: One Ring to rule them all. It is a belief that Reason can triumph over Roots, that the universal logic of the French Revolution can be established across the continent, not by a Napoleonic conqueror but by a patient and inexorable bureaucracy. Spain’s Spider King Phillip II, or the patiently laboring Franz-Joseph of Austria-Hungary, endlessly toiling over paperwork and annotating bureaucratic memoranda, are the symbols of the New Europe, rather than Napoleon on horseback.

It remains an open question whether bureaucratic cosmpolitanism can triumph over nationalism in Europe, but we have our doubts. Spider kings are persistent and patient, but they don’t win many wars. The tissue of European law is becoming ever more dense and the bureaucracy is becoming more powerful—but nationalism is also gaining new strength. Most significantly, German unification has brought the German Question back into European politics. Germany is too strong to accept a European system that it doesn’t like, but too weak to impose its own vision on the rest. At the same time, the continuing decline of France and the growing gap between the economic and social systems in Latin Europe and the North make it harder to reach common ground when Europeans disagree. The failure of Europe’s model of integration and assimilation in the Balkans also looms as a danger in the long term.

The Norwegian Peace Prize Committee deeply believes in bureaucratic cosmopolitanism and desperately wants it to win. Given the role of nationalism in Europe’s sad history of wars this is an understandable point of view. The Peace Prize, quite properly a political award given to people and movements which seem, in the judgment of the custodians of the award, likely to advance the cause of world peace, is being given to the EU to promote the post-historical cosmopolitan project in Europe and abroad.

The EU would probably be more successful if it adopted a more limited and realistic agenda. But whatever the EU does, Americans should never forget that Europe’s troubles are not helping us. We are not in some kind of competition with Europe for world leadership. (The belief that we are is one of the persistent illusions by which many Europeans magnify their own sense of self-importance.) Rather, whatever their shortcomings, the European Union and its member states are full of people whose prosperity and power make the world a better place. America’s core criticism of its European allies is that their failure to manage security responsibly is undermining our common security and the NATO alliance, and their economic policy failures are undermining their own and the world’s prosperity. We want them to succeed, not to fail.

The Peace Prize award does, however, demonstrate that the European Union still has a few tasks to accomplish. Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger (1973) used to complain that if he wanted to speak to Europe he didn’t know what telephone number to ring. The Peace Prize Committee had the same problem. The award doesn’t specify who should receive the prize on the EU’s behalf. The president of the European Parliament? The president of the European Council? The president of the European Commission? The president of the Council of the European Union?

The Norwegians have a tangled history with the EU. Twice Norwegian governments have negotiated accession agreements with earlier iterations of what is now the EU, and twice Norway’s voters voted against EU membership in a referendum. It’s possible that the parliamentarians on the Peace Prize Committee are signaling their regret over these actions by their voters. It is in any case interesting that the Peace Prize Committee has chosen to honor an organization to which their fellow citizens do not wish to belong.

Top image: Shutterstock; Sidebar image: Shutterstock]

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