Special Report

A Prize to Die For

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize 2012 may be the surest sign that Europe, the project, is failing.

By 10.15.12

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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.

In the 1948 elections in Italy, de Gasperi came from behind to defeat the powerful PCI, Italian Communist Party. The PCF (the French comrades) was not as powerful, but it was kept out of power only by an uneasy alliance of Schumann-led centrists and anti-communist Socialists. In Germany it was somewhat easier for Adenauer, with his strong anti-Nazi and anti-communist credentials, to establish a CDU hegemony that would last well into the 1960s. For these men the pan-European idea was more a matter of mutual help than a blueprint for a technocratic utopia.

Yet that is what the European movement gradually became. From the Coal and Steel Community and the Common Market that, along with massive agricultural and maritime subsidies turned France and Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy, into business partners instead of political and military enemies, through the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community in the late 1950s and, eventually, the Single Act of the late 1980s establishing the free movement of capital, goods, services, and labor throughout the said Community -- soon to be renamed Union -- the minutiae of running the sprawling project eventually took over the goal of keeping the peace and resisting the Soviet-led revolution.

Not that peace was not kept. There has been no war in western Europe since 1945. Whether this is due to the evolving European economic unity project or to the presence of American armies in Europe, the experts can discuss and debate. Probably both. There was no reason for Germany and France to go to war, since everyone was getting more prosperous and the Americans were keeping the Soviets out. It is something of a chicken-or-egg question, although, in our more reflective moments, we probably know very well what was keeping the peace, only we are too polite to insist.

The reality is that when the crunch, or the test, came, the European entity, in the very process of evolving from Community to Union, failed the test. War broke out in Europe -- specifically, in the Balkans, and the little that was done to stop it was done by NATO troops and, later, the United States Air Force. It was not a very good show, but admittedly it could have been worse and it did end without spreading, as it had in 1914.

There is cause to question, in short, just what this year's Nobel Peace Prize really is supposed to signify. Are the European institutions, run by an army of bureaucrats concerned with how cheeses are packaged, responsible for the peace that has been achieved in Europe, or are they contributing to a long-term decline of European influence that is leaving the world, including ultimately Europe itself, vulnerable to forces of war and anarchy?

It is difficult to imagine members of the Nobel peace committee waking up at dawn troubled by such questions. They want, one imagines, to congratulate themselves for being who they are, which is to say well-ordered, well-regulated, prim and proper peaceful Oslovians. They are increasingly successful in this endeavor. But this is having the effect of cutting them off from the realities of a very dangerous world outside Oslo and Stockholm and a few other blessedly dull places in northern Europe.

Since receiving the Nobel Peace Prize our president has made the world more, or less, safe, depending on your assessment of his foreign policy, but he certainly has not made it more peaceful, neither by diplomacy nor by the calibrated use of force that would impose respect for our national interests in places far away. In the case of the European movement, it is likely that calling attention to its contributions to peace-making, at a time when it seems unable to come to grips with a broad crisis of entitlements and expectations, is mostly a way to avert one's eyes from its failures. And this is sad indeed, because if things are not turned around soon, the failure will be seen by future generations as a betrayal: the betrayal of a European vision of free men and free nations, the kind Lech Walesa -- Nobel Peace Prize, 1983 -- fought for. Europe will be unable to reverse its economic decline and its vulnerability to nihilistic subversion from within and without, and the peace for which it earned accolades and prizes will be the peace of death. 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.