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13 October 2012

2012 Nobel Prize

The Nobel Committee has announced that the EU is the recipient of the 2012 Peace Prize, and in a year where peace has been hard to come by (and it would look a bit presumptuous to give it to President Obama again so soon, even after all his peacemaking successes), they had to give it to somebody. 

There are, I suppose, two ways to look at the Prize, either as a "You had a great year" award or as a "Lifetime Achievement Award." Obviously, it hasn't been the former, unless you somehow believe that the rise of neo-Fascist parties in Greece (Golden Dawn) and the UK (the BNP), and the strengthening of Communist parties in Greece, Czech Republic, and Italy contribute to peace. Indeed, one of the few ways one could interpret the conferral of the Peace Prize on the EU in this way would be to give it a sort of confidence boost, a cheering up from those plucky Norwegians (who themselves must be sighing with relief about not being in the eurozone). When Angela Merkel is greeted with Hakenkreuze and jackboots by an impoverished Athens in which men in suits root through garbage, the goal of economic peace the EU so desperately crafted can only be interpreted ironically. The EU's decades-long attempts to create a space of peace, freedom, prosperity, and solidarity themselves have revealed how little individuals in European nations agree on the meaning of those terms, and giving the prize to the European Union at the very moment the Union is at its most fragile since it renamed itself the "Union" is a gesture of hope, rather than an expression of realistic assessment.

As a Lifetime Achievement Award, the EU perhaps fares better, though in this way it signals that the rest of the world has run out of peacemakers for the time being. (Maybe leading from behind wasn't such a good idea after all.) Your correspondent writes from the train at this time, speeding past Weimar, earlier smoothly following the Elbe, crossing the border from Bohemia to Saxony without even waking. European efforts to facilitate commerce and cultural and educational exchange have helped to make Europe smaller than ever before. (Of course, this integration would not have been possible without NATO quietly resting in Europe's foreign policy holster, and it's hardly a coincidence that European integration has only accelerated since the end of the Cold War.) And it is certainly true that the European Union has rewarded the development of democracy on its doorstep, albeit tolerant only of a very specific type of "blue social model" welfare state. 

One question, of course, is whether or not its promotion of democratic governance does anything for people who live in the dictatorships on Europe's periphery. In the 90's, democratic Europeans wanted to return to democratic Europe; Europeans that weren't simply ignored the Union, and they still do. 

Internally, certainly the EU has established structures and sentiments that have made Europeans less likely to go to war against each other, and a Europe at peace is itself a precious thing. Whether a supranational structure over democratic polities is necessary to prevent war against them, however, is a bit of a stretch, and insofar as that supranational structure thwarts democracy, it may even be counterproductive for peace.

That leads us to the final aspect of commentary on this year's Peace Prize, which is of course the perennial problematic question of the prize itself, and the meaning of peace. The citation written out by Alfred Nobel discussed the importance of the reduction of standing armies, and the elimination of war. In this, the Prize will always seem to possess a bit of a contradiction; the surest times of peace have been eras in which power vacuums are sealed, but trade is freed. How those power vacuums are sealed, however, is usually by  standing armies (or even more likely, navies). The practical Peace Prize bumps up against the idealist's Peace Prize. Europe certainly has reduced its standing armies, but it is foolish to believe that doing so was what caused the (relative) peace in Europe today.

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