Sunday, October 21, 2012

On the European Union's Nobel Peace Prize

In Isaac Asimov's classic story "The Evitable Conflict," Stephen Byerley suggests that the major conflicts of human history were never settled by force. Instead each of them "persisted through a series of conflicts, then vanished of itself – 'not with a bang, but with a whimper,' as the economic and social environment changed." So it was with the competition of the Houses of Hapsburg and Valois-Bourbon for European hegemony, or the clash of Catholic and Protestant for dominion over Western Christendom. So it also was with the "nationalist-imperialist wars" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
when the most important question in the world was which portions of Europe would control the economic resources and consuming capacity of which portions of non-Europe . . . Until the forces of nationalism spread sufficiently, so that non-Europe ended what all the wars could not, and decided it could exist quite comfortably all non-European.
This explanation of the end of that cycle of wars, published in this story a mere five years after VE Day, seems to me far more persuasive than its attribution to regional integration via the European Union and its predecessors - something inextricable from the rationale given for the EU's receipt of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, its role in uniting the continent.

The fact of Europe's Cold War-era division, the much more powerful presence of the U.S. and Soviet Union on the continent's balance of power, to say nothing of their considerable control over the members of their alliance systems, marginalized the importance of the balance of power among the West European states themselves. It is worth remembering, too, that the elites of these countries were ideologically committed to internationalist anti-Communism far and above intra-European nationalistic grievances (in West Germany's case, even above German unity). At any rate, their defense expenditures and military activities were constrained by the damage to their economies during the war and the costs of rebuilding after, and in the case of Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium their efforts to prop up the remnants of their colonial empires - with even that much implausible without the United States footing the bill (the U.S. paid eighty percent of the cost for France's failed war to retain Indochina) and impossible in the face of U.S. disapproval (as demonstrated during the 1956 Suez War). For all the blood shed over them, those empires vanished quickly (non-Europe clearly decided to be non-European, to borrow Asimov's phrase), eliminating one of the principal objects of contention among the European powers for the last four centuries. Meanwhile the division of Germany sharply reduced its margin of demographic and economic superiority over France and Britain, and along with their acquisition of nuclear weaponry, guaranteed its inability to appreciably threaten them - even without the considerable, immediate restraints imposed by the superpowers.

At the same time welfare state capitalism (prompted, in part, by fears of the radicalization of Western electorates in its absence) brought rapid growth and distributed its fruits widely enough to produce generalized and rising affluence, dampening prickly nationalisms and contributing greatly to domestic stability. Along with the war-weariness induced by the conflict (which came on top of the war-weariness that followed in the wake of World War I), reinforced by the tastes later age cohorts had of conflict in colonial campaigns and Cold War missions from Londonderry to Algiers to the East Indies, and war scares where the Bomb seemed dangerously close to coming into play, this greatly diminished the appeal of belligerent grandstanding over territorial disagreements or perceived insults to the national honor. What aggressive nationalism remained tended to be directed internally, against the post-war influx of immigrants (exclusion, rather than expansion, its orientation).

These changes, of course, survived the economic downturn of the 1970s, and the end of the Cold War. Certainly Germany's reunification caused anxieties in certain quarters, but the melodrama that surrounded the event - like Margaret Thatcher's absurd request that Mikhail Gorbachev "halt" the process, or the conversations between Francois Mitterand's aide Jacques Attali with Anatoly Chernyaev regarding the revival of the '30s-era Franco-Soviet alliance - merely testified to lagging perceptions among the generation that lived through the war (and in some cases, one suspects, an even more profound disconnect from reality), demonstrated most clearly by the level of abstraction in the discussions, the scarcity of anything like concrete scenarios. (No one really expected some renewed German assault on Alsace-Lorraine or Operation Barbarossa II, for instance, or articulated anything comparable that they did regard as more plausible.)

Consequently, rather than making peace possible, it would seem that the EU was made possible by the roles of the U.S. and Soviet Union and the bigger Cold War that hung over the old conflicts; by the end of Europe's empires; by the arrival of the nuclear age and the limitations it imposed on old-style war-making; by the comforts of welfare capitalism; by the weariness which followed the hugely destructive wars of the earlier era, the smaller wars of the post-1945 period, and the frightening prospect of a war even more destructive than all those seen in the past - with almost all of these developments significantly originating in or prompted by events outside Europe.

Of course, that raises the question of what the European Union did with the opportunity afforded it by all the factors discussed above. The Union did achieve a unity of sorts - but its achievements have actually been least impressive in the realm of foreign policy and defense, this remaining very much the purview of separate nation-states (and what those states actually did prominent in criticisms of the award from both the right and left). Integration has been much deeper in the continent's economic life, but the contribution this actually made to peace is wide open to question, by those who question the claims made for international trade as pacifier, those who are doubtful about free trade as an engine of prosperity, and those who see the Union's combination of expansion and neoliberal prescriptions (the consequences of which are quite apparent on European streets from Athens to Lisbon) as having been quite inimical to the cause the prize is supposed to celebrate and advance.1

1. I am reminded at this point of a different, more recent science fiction tale, Robert J. Sawyer's novel Flash Forward (the basis for the short-lived TV series). In the book businessman Mr. Cheung, after developing a technique to make human beings immortal, decides to offer the treatment to Nobel Prize winners, peace prize winners included, as "by and large the selections are deserving" of the award. As the critics of this prize demonstrate, this is not a view with which all would agree.

Fourth Reich Rising?
2/25/12

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