You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Europe Earned Its Nobel Peace Prize

An Homage.

ON DECEMBER 10, the Norwegian Nobel Committee will bestow its Peace Prize upon the European Union, and the wisdom of the committee’s action ought to be obvious to every last creature on Earth. The European Union consists of 27 states containing roughly 500 million citizens, not all of whom are worthy recipients of the prize, given the Nazis in Greece, fascists in Hungary, Islamist gunmen in France, anti-immigrant demagogues and bigots in general almost everywhere, child molesters, and investors in Spanish real estate bubbles, not to mention the political leaders incapable of approving a sufficiently robust economic stimulus, and so forth, unto the uptick lately in Catalan nationalism. Most of those 500 million Europeans deserve their award, though.

Alfred Nobel, the unfortunate inventor of dynamite, died before he was able to articulate the logic for his prize, but no explanation was necessary. The history of Europe during the last four 400 years has been punctuated by one attempt after another to avoid a recurrence of the mother-tragedy of all European tragedies, which was the Thirty Years War back in the seventeenth century, together with the sundry other religious wars of the time. Europeans slaughtered each other for the purpose of imposing on the entire continent a single theological truth, which was going to be Catholicism, or Protestantism, or some variation, but was not going to be more than one of the above. And the agreements that brought the slaughters to an end, codified in the seventeenth century, rested on the tolerant principle of cuius regio, eius religio, meaning, the local religion will be whatever the local potentate says it is, and neighboring potentates should mind their own business.

This was a principle of renunciation. Europe agreed to give up on the ambition of discovering a single truth and set out instead to manage the multiple truths. Renunciation and muddling-through proved to be a success, within limits. During the 150 years that followed, European wars tended to be ritualized affairs fought by armies wearing colored jackets, as in sports, shooting at each other instead of at the bystanders. When the system broke down, it was only because the French Revolution had introduced a different dispute about right and wrong—instead of Catholicism versus Protestantism, a matter of feudalism versus post-feudalism. And when Napoleon was defeated and order was reestablished, the principles of peace conformed roughly to the same doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio as before, except extended this time to multiple sociopolitical systems (e.g., constitutional monarchy, bourgeois monarchy, multinational imperial paternalism, backward-looking czarist despotism, forward-looking French-style barricade-building, etc.).

The new peace lasted 99 years, with occasional interruptions and a giant massacre of the Paris Commune, not to mention the imperialist wars foisted on the rest of the world. Then it fell apart once again, this time because of yet another set of new ideas, having to do with idiotic nationalist resentments and mad theories about race. The Thirty Years War broke out anew. Or maybe the twentieth-century wars rested on a nihilist impulse to kill everyone in sight, akin to a disgruntled young person shooting up his high school or a movie theater, urged on by scurrilous ideologues.

The European Union of our own moment rests on a different principle altogether. It is something new: an affirmation instead of a renunciation. Maybe there is a poetic aspect to the new idea. The French poet Paul Valéry (to cite an example) presented one strand of the new argument after World War I. In his estimation, Europe amounted to a single civilization and not just a collection of national and religious rivalries. The civilization derived from the ancient Greeks, who invented rational analysis (“geometry”), which is available to everyone; and derived from the ancient Romans, whose concept of law applied to everyone, regardless of nationality or local gods; and derived from the Catholic Church, which brought the Greek and Roman ideas into the modern age. European civilization, Valéry continued, was a cosmopolitan fact, and not an ethnic fact. But Europe was also a fragile civilization fully capable of expiring, unless thoughtful people rallied to its defense. Such was the poetic argument.

The nineteenth-century workers’ movement added a different strand to the new European argument. The Socialist International held its founding congresses circa 1890 in Western Europe, and the assembled worthies drew explicitly on Marx, and implicitly on Kant, and came up with policy proposals. The Socialists advocated a society defined by democracy and equal rights for women and everybody else (regardless of nationality), free education and health care, labor rights, separation of church and state, and a regulated economy. Here was a single truth for everyone, pictured as a labor-movement ideal for the future.

Then again, the pro-business Catholic conservatives of the post–World War II era, whose intellectual leader was a French technocrat named Jean Monnet, also had their say, which turns out to have been the biggest say of all. The Christian Democrats, in laying out their idea, wanted to avoid saying anything that might incite a nationalist reaction or might get anyone overexcited, and, in this spirit, they came up with a coal-and-steel pact for France and Germany, than which nothing could be drabber. The pact was exceedingly clever. Through mysterious processes understood by no one but its devisers (who knew what they were doing), the pact unobtrusively expanded into a larger pact, which expanded into something called the Common Market, which expanded into the European Community, which blossomed at last into the enormous European flower called the European Union, which itself has continued to sprout new stems and leaves, creeping ever farther eastward. And lo, the EU has gone about regulating and even imposing matters of democratic rights and liberties and social protection exactly as the nineteenth-century Socialists long ago proposed, minus the fantastical elements in the old Socialist idea.

One other factor has entered into these developments, and this is the United States. Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida published a little manifesto in 2003, at the high tide of anti–George Bush mania, calling on Europe to stand up against the hegemonic power of a country where the president wraps himself in prayer and divine mission. And it may well be true that, from time to time, a spirit of European we-are-more-civilized has entered into the EU’s reasoning—perhaps because, on various matters, although not on every matter, Europe does seem more civilized, as every American with a passport has noticed: in protection for the poor, aspects of health care, urbanism, the discouraging of violence, certain ecological issues, and so forth.

But the larger point about America’s role in the European development was made by Václav Havel in his celebrated speech to the U.S. Congress in 1990. Three times the United States has come to Europe’s rescue—in the two wars against Germany and in the cold war. And rescue long ago took the institutional form of NATO, which has guaranteed the entire project.

Here is the result, then: a loosely (too loosely) federated continental political system, resting on democratic and parliamentary systems and human rights; far more biased toward social democracy (at least in the EU’s western half) than anything to be seen in the United States; more or less united in support of high culture (likewise a refreshingly un-American feature); and relying ultimately on a popular consensus to look askance at the populist and ethnic demagogues who keep cropping up anyway, in continual demonstration of Valéry’s point that a civilization can always be ruined.

The EU countries have achieved a consensus in one other field, which is the wispy zone of psychology. From the Atlantic coast to the borders of Russia, a single mood prevails. It is gloom. Some of the gloom is massively well-deserved. The Socialist International called for economic regulation back in 1889; and, by 2012, the EU has still not figured out how to regulate its own banks. This is a scandal. But some of the gloom is puzzling. You can go to a European success story like Poland today and find serious thinkers even there, heroes of the revolution of 1989, who will tell you that life has followed a downward course ever since Poland shook off the Soviet Union. What is wrong with these people?

Valéry noticed something similar almost a century ago and he worried about it even then—a sense of fatigue and exhaustion, as if Europe no longer felt capable of achieving anything. Still, if the problem is old, it cannot be blamed entirely on the EU. Anyway, Jean Monnet and the coal-and-steel planners who set the European project into motion never wanted to cheer people up. They wanted to proceed so gradually that no one would notice the progress, in order to avoid arousing opposition. This has turned out to be another success. No one has noticed.

The main thing that no one has noticed is peace. The EU comprises by now most of the European continent, and, in those portions, the possibility of wars breaking out has reached the level statistically known as zero. Here is something new under the sun. And the achievement is being marked in a suitable manner—not by a military parade with planes overhead and tanks ruining the pavement, but modestly and quietly, in a simple and probably slightly melancholy prize ceremony in Oslo, to which everyone ought to say, hooray.        

Paul Berman is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Nobel Intentions.”