Worst Prize Ever?

by Erik Voeten on October 15, 2012 · 3 comments

in International Relations

So I guess I was one of the very few who thought that handing the EU the Nobel Peace Prize was a pretty good idea. At a time when crisis threatens the EU’s future, the Prize Committee’s invitation to reflect on the EU’s plausible long term contributions to peace and democratization seems pretty useful to me (as far as Prize Committees can be useful).  Yet, the overwhelming response on the interwebs has been snark and little reflection. Stephen Walt writes that Alex Massie offers an “incisive takedown” on the “silly prize” (Massie calls it the “worst prize ever.”)

The funny thing is that Massie’s assessment of the historical evidence is very similar to mine. He is just less impressed with it than I am. Here is what Massie has to say about the EU’s contribution to democratization:

It is true that Southern (Portugal, Spain, Greece) and Eastern Europe have embraced democracy like never before in their histories, and it’s true as well that the carrot of EU membership and assorted other benefits has played a role in this process. The EU’s allure has surely played a part in moving the former Yugoslavia toward a more peaceful, civilized future—and even in nudging poor, unwanted Turkey toward democratic reforms.

But it might also be observed that other parts of the world have moved to more democratic arrangements without the incentive of EU membership. Latin America and parts of Asia and even Africa have shifted to democracy, so there is at least a plausible argument that the EU is given more credit than it merits for Europe’s peaceful embrace of the ballot box. Might it have happened even without the EU? Possibly

OK, fine. But isn’t it a pretty big deal if the EU has indeed contributed to democratizing Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, and Turkey; even if it wasn’t the only factor involved? I mean, that’s a lot of people in a lot of countries with interesting histories. And, we haven’t even discussed the relative lack of backsliding among EU countries compared to other continents. He then goes on to peace:


 It is true that war in Western Europe is more inconceivable now than at any point in the continent’s history as a series of organized states. The EU has played a part, though not necessarily a dominant one, in helping Europe reach this unusually happy state of being. France and Germany, antagonists for so long, can hardly imagine fighting one another again. Again, the EU —which began life as a series of coal and steel agreements signed by Bonn and Paris—has helped end centuries of mutual suspicion and hostility. But it might also simply be the case that the horrors of the 20th century convinced even the most bellicose German or Frenchman that further conflicts between their respective countries could only end in even greater calamity. At long last, we reached the wars to end all wars.

The idea that we have seen peace in Europe because the Germans and French finally realized that the “war to end all wars” has been fought is historically naive. Nuclear weapons and the Cold War are more plausible alternative explanations.Yet,  I again agree with Massie’s assessment that the “EU has played a part, though not necessarily a dominant one, in helping Europe reach this unusually happy state of being.” In contrast to Massie, though, I again think that this is pretty damn awesome. Can you really go through the list of Nobel Peace prize winners and point to one who was solely responsible for peace in one country? Of course not. Peace is complicated. If you can create a governing structure that makes peace just a bit more likely on a historically violent continent, then I am happy to get out the balloons and celebrate the award.

Look, I understand why Realists like Stephen Walt and Dan Drezner think that the EU should have shared its award with NATO, U.S. Air Command or even the Atomic bomb (and I leave the reasons why that isn’t happening to our readers). But an organization that played a part, even if not necessarily a dominant one, in bringing peace and democracy to a historically violent continent does not deserve the “worst prize ever” epithet; not in this company.

 

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