Winning the Nobel Peace Prize 2012 may be the surest sign that Europe, the project, is failing.
The committee appointed by the Norwegian parliament to select the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, in keeping with the instructions of Alfred Nobel, did its job this year and named the winner: the European Union. If this were a tennis contest you would hear the famous line, “You cannot be serious,” and if it were baseball the Bronx cheers would be pouring down from the bleachers intermingled with cries of “Kill da umpire!” In football, you would have to assume the replacement refs were still on the job. But this is neither football nor baseball nor tennis, it is politics.
Why Norwegians? The technical answer is that when the Swedish chemist and industrialist Alfred Nobel wrote the endowment into his will in 1895, Norway and Sweden shared some of their government functions. They had separate parliaments, however, and Nobel may have felt the pols in Oslo would be perceived as more politically impartial seeing as how they would be distributing Swedish money. But the interesting question is why the judgment of Norwegian parliamentarians should carry so much weight after over a century of choices without criteria of the kind that are used to measure scientific achievements.
The answer is that it does not carry as much weight as the interest raised every year by the event suggests. Nothing happens when Al Gore wins. Possibly Mother Teresa received more donations for a time after she won but not much improved in Calcutta’s hard-up neighborhoods.
In short, the prize committee partakes of the follies expected of political choices. Past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize include Yasser Arafat, a terrorist, and Le Duc Tho, an apparatnik in a Stalinist regime composed of mass killers. The best justification one can put on these choices is that these figures took part in negotiations, with their enemies (Shimon Peres, Yitzak Rabin for the first, Henry Kissinger for the second), who shared the prize with them, which arguably led to cessations of hostilities, or at least lulls, in continuing wars.
But this is not convincing. Soon after getting his prize, Le Duc Tho joined his comrades in ordering a final assault on the Republic of Vietnam; it was successful, as by then the U.S. Congress had passed legislation making it impossible for any American government to come to the aid of its embattled ally or even supply it with ammunition. It led to bloodbaths throughout Indochina; more exactly, it completed the bloodbaths the Communists had been giving the peoples of Indochina since the 1940s.
Henry Kissinger and his boss, President Richard Nixon, may have been honorable men doing the best they could, or they may have been engaged in a cynical game of Realpolitik, as some of their detractors on the right have alleged. I personally believe they fought the good fight as long as they could. That is another story, however; the point here is that in terms of promoting peace, abolishing standing armies or what-all, which Nobel specified were the criteria for awarding the prize, Kissinger was, notably in Vietnam, unsuccessful. So why give him a prize?
Because of politics. It got into the minds of successive generations of Norwegians that the Nobel Peace Prize could and should be used to encourage — what? Trends and fashions that they, the committee members, approve of or wish for. In Oslo you can fantasize about Bertha von Suttner as a force for peace. An impoverished Austrian princess of some sort, a writer and Tolstoyan pacifist and, not incidentally, a friend of Alfred Nobel, she took the prize in 1905, with absolutely no consequence whatsoever on women’s writing, peace activism, or vegetarianism, which — I have to look this up — she may well have favored. She was the type.
In Oslo you can fantasize about a man like Le Duc Tho becoming fraternal and even friendly with a man like Henry Kissinger, or you can believe Yasser Arafat has a profound and heartfelt interest in the well-being of the Jewish people, maybe even their right to live in peace in their own country. On a lesser order of delirium, you can convince yourself a woman named Rigoberta Menchu really advanced peace and human decency in Guatemala, even though much of her work was pure fable. You can hope that the election of Barack Obama means peace is about to envelop the entire globe and the human race is going to follow the Ten Commandments to a man.
Note that in the case of our 44th president, the Norwegians displayed the whole nine yards of corruption that characterizes the Nobel Peace Prize. No reflection on Barack Obama, who after all did not ask for it, but the intellectual corruption of giving a prize for work toward peace that might happen was compounded by the political corruption of wanting to reward the American voters who elected a president of whom the Norwegians approved — neither of which remotely fit the criteria set down by Alfred Nobel in his will regarding the awarding of the prize.
(What he willed was that the prize be awarded to individuals who have done the most or the best work to promote solidarity among nations, reduce standing armies, and promote peace conferences. Admittedly these do not define the kinds of criteria one can use to evaluate work in medicine or physics or chemistry or even literature or, dismally, economics. But, in a perhaps exaggerated form, this is what the whole racket has come down to.)
In the case of Europe, the peace prize has some substance in the sense that Europe has avoided the kinds of wars that, from 1789 onward, and particularly in the successive civil wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45, very nearly brought civilization as we know it to an end and certainly diminished the role of the European peoples in the continuing work of sustaining and advancing civilization. But what does this really mean? Were Europeans too exhausted to keep on killing one another, or was the European Union a factor in bringing them to their senses?
It should be understood that the European Union represents the capture of the European movement by what Marxists might call a bureaucratic-statist class of functionaries and that Mr. Tyrrell might call the closest thing to American Liberals known to Europe. What began in the 1950s as a cooperative union in key mining, industrial, and agricultural sectors and that was expected to move toward a customs union and, perchance, something “ever closer” to federalism, turned into a machinery of bureaucratic regulation of all aspects of economic, and by derivation social, life.
The European movement, putting aside its medieval antecedents (the Holy Roman Empire and all that), was in its beginnings a conservative movement. It foresaw, in the early years of the 20th century, that forces of unreason and fanaticism and revolution and class hatred and race hatred and plain hatred were loose. Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, in the 1920s, launched the modern idea of a union of European nations and peoples that would overcome the ancient hatreds and fears that sundered the Old World. Kalergi, a quite astonishingly original man of the old Austro-Hungarian mittel-Europa, spoke most civilized languages and was indefatigable in his promotion of an alliance of elites to overcome the great dangers unleashed by the convergence of massive economic emancipation and democratic demagoguery. His justified fear was that the totalitarian state would harness these new economic and political forces and centralize all power. He based his political program on the commonsensical observation that the key to European peace was to end the historic and disastrous rivalry between France and Germany, a rivalry that seemed to permit the unending accumulation of military and political power by those nations’ central governments. Europe, the political entity, would allow for substantial restoration of power to localities that were submerged by the state.
This was, too, the premise of the three men who created the present-day Europe, the political entity overtaking the geographical one. Konrad Adenauer, Maurice Schumann, and Alcide de Gasperi shared two important biographical details: they were Catholics, and they came from the frontier lands of their countries — Adenauer and Schumann were Rhinelanders (on the German and French sides, respectively), and de Gasperi was a Tyrolian. Weak attachments, not to say resistance, to the centralizing mania of Paris or Berlin or Rome, combined with a faith that allowed them to transcend parochial passions — probably one of the reasons they were, in fact, so good in their early years as champions of their local constituencies — made them appreciative consumers of the kinds of ideas promoted by the Pan-European movement of Kalergi and others.
The main practical issue, of course, was to end the cycle of wars for the control of the coal mining regions, the forests, the agricultural valleys and the vineyards, the crafts and trading centers, of the old Lotharingian axis that ran from Bruges and Bruxelles toward northern Italy, passing through rich Flemish, Rheinish, and Burgundian lands. Adenauer and Schumann and de Gasperi were Christian Democrats, wary of schemes of salvation by means of politics alone. They were sharply conscious of the communist threat — the Soviet divisions a few hundred miles away and the militant pro-Soviet parties within their own countries.