The Duck of Minerva

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EU and the Peace Prize (Round 2)

October 12, 2012

The initial reaction from Facebook and from my Realist friends reveals a certain amount of scorn for the Nobel Peace Prize announcement this morning.   The EU today is an easy parody and I guess the response is to be expected.

Nonetheless, I appreciate Erik Voeten’s post that Dan linked below and share his bottom line that this is a decent decision.  I would just add a couple of additional points.  First, I agree that if we evaluate or judge the EU from the reference of 2012 or the most recent past, this decision looks a bit bizarre.   But, if we situate it in the broader historical context of the post-war Europe, I think the EU is certainly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The continent from 1914 to 1945 was an absolute mess – in those three decades, somewhere between 75 and 90 million people died as a result of war.   We’re nearly seven decades removed from the end of World War II and with time and distance it is often difficult to fully comprehend the human misery, the hopelessness, and the sheer exhaustion.  To this day, the Holocaust remains something with which we can barely understand and absorb.

It was not clear in immediate years after WWII how the continent could or would be reconstructed or rehabilitated after the war.   The politics within post-war Western Europe did not bode well for a lengthy period of stability.  Politics were influenced by (and contested around) misery, fear, anger, and the intensification of the US-Soviet rivalry —  hardly the prerequisites for the formation of stable, functional governance or the emergence of an effective and integrated security community. Many were skeptical that Europe would ever be able to be peaceful without a ruthless victors’ peace.  Henry Morgenthau, FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury,  for example, wanted post-war Germany to be de-industrialized and made into an agrarian-pastoral nation – an attitude that had significant support in the United States. If we rewind and view the world from 1945 or 1950, there was very little within the political, social, or economic situation that offered confidence for a lasting peace.

So, what caused this peace?  Voeten has a nice, brief summary of the major strands of literature.  I would just add that parsing out the independent effects of the multiple contributing factors is extraordinarily difficult.   To be sure, no one can deny that the US security umbrella played a role.  But, it is absurd to suggest that the mere presence of the external Soviet threat coupled with the US security umbrella was sufficient to generate the depth of stability and the lasting peace we’ve witnessed since 1945.  War between France and Germany has not only been unlikely because of  rational cost-benefit calculation of the costs of war in light of the American security umbrella, it really has been unimaginable for the last five decades.  Societal norms and values, public attitudes, elite expectations and practices have all converged. Democratic governments emerged when few thought possible, economic exchange has become more extensive and dynamic and has been able to absorb a number of significant dislocations. And, throughout, the EU and its predecessor institutions —  have helped create, reinforce, and accelerate the fundamental transformations of  interests and identities.   The international relations of Europe today are profoundly different than at anytime in history.   From the vantage point of any historical moment before 1950, the very thought that war among western European powers could be unimaginable, was itself unimaginable — or at least seen as some idealistic pipe dream. By almost any measure, we can confidently say that what it means to be German vis-à-vis French today is profoundly different today than what it meant to be German vis-à-vis French in 1800, 1870, 1914, 1939, or 1945.  This is really remarkable and almost certainly includes ideational and material factors that were aided in no small part by the integration process and the emergence of the EU.

Tony Judt’s summed up his defense of the EU this way:

“…while the European Union has neither the means nor mechanisms to prevent its member-states from coming to blows, its very existence renders the idea somehow absurd.  The lesson that war was too high a price to pay for political or territorial advantage had already been brought home to the victors after World War one, though it took a second war to convey the same lesson to the losing side.  But just because a third-inter-European war would have been catastrophic and perhaps terminal does not mean it could not have happened, at least in the early post-war years.”

For all of the EU’s faults and pathologies today, Europe has been transformed, in part, by a concept that was inspired and visionary in its time.   That it succeeded in contributing to making war in Europe unimaginable is all the more remarkable.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.