Why NATO Should Have Won the Nobel

October 15, 2012 Topic: European UnionNATOPeacekeeping Region: Europe

Why NATO Should Have Won the Nobel

The peace prize went to the right continent but the wrong organization.

Portrait of Alfred Nobel. The Norwegian Nobel Committee surprised most observers with its award of the peace prize to the European Union for its contributions to "the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe."

The Telegraph 's Iain Martin wonders whether the committee has "been infiltrated by satirists or opponents keen on discrediting the organization." Observing that, in the year since President Obama was awarded the prize on spec in 2008, he's "continued the war in Afghanistan, stepped up drone attacks and got America involved in Libya's bloody revolution, suggesting that it is better to hand out baubles after someone has finished their job rather than when they are just getting started or are half way through," Martin figures that likewise "Giving the EU a peace prize is at best premature, like knighting Sir Fred Goodwin in the middle of the mad boom. We have no idea how the experiment to create an anti-democratic federation will end." The Economist 's Charlemagne columnist agrees, observing the the ongoing euro-zone crisis "may yet destroy the euro and, with it, much of the European integration project."

Still, as UN Dispatch 's Mark Leon Goldberg notes, the lack of major European wars since 1945 is rather impressive, given how common inter-European strife had been in the previous centuries. Indeed, the Nobel committee outlines that rationale in its  award announcement , noting, “The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a seventy-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable.”

But the committee then leaps to an odd conclusion: “This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners.” Carleton University political scientist  Steve Saideman notes the obvious elephant in the room: "If you want to give the EU an award for keeping the post-war peace, it should be behind NATO in line." Charlemagne agrees, "Surely NATO and the presence of American forces has been an equally, if not more important factor in keeping the peace in Europe through the decades of the cold war. And it was intervention by America more than Europe, be it as the EU or individual countries, that eventually put a stop to the bloodletting in the ex-Yugoslavia."

Martin is more strident:

Daftest of all is the notion that the EU itself has kept the peace. It was the Allies led by the Americans, the Russians and the British who defeated and disarmed the Germans in 1945. The German people then underwent the most extraordinary reckoning, transforming their country into an essentially pacifist society. The EU had very little to do with it. Throughout that period it was Nato, led by the Americans and British, which kept the peace in Western Europe.

Indeed, Saideman observes:

When the EU has been confronted with a problem of war and peace, people suddenly realize it is a composite of countries with varying interests and commitments and not a single foreign policy-producing entity. The EU failed its first big test when Yugoslavia fell apart. Its recognition of Slovenia and Croatia did not cause anything really but demonstrated that conditions did not matter more than intra-EU wrangling since Macedonia met the conditions more than Croatia. The EU split over Iraq 2003, and did not do much more than twitch over Libya. So, the EU's record as a force for peace beyond its members is pretty lame.

Georgetown's Erik Voeten surveys the democratic peace literature and, while he finds some justification for attributing post-World War II peace to the EU, he tends to side with realists who argue that NATO and the U.S. security umbrella deserve most of the credit. Still, he credits the EU for much post-Cold War progress, arguing that “the EU sped up its integration considerably with the end of the Cold War; creating deeper institutions and adding fifteen new member states. “ While granting that the “integration of the Eastern European former socialist states has not gone without difficulties,” he contends “it has gone a lot better than it plausible [ sic] would have without the EU. The promise of EU membership markedly improved democracy, human rights and market economy in all states, although it remains imperfect progress in some.”

Noting that “Europe is a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic continent thanks to the EU,” Voeten concludes that this is “a Peace Prize much deserved.” That NATO likely deserves it more doesn't change that. And, given the overlap in membership, it’s largely the same people being honored. Still, it’s odd to give out an award for making peace in Europe while ignoring the rather considerable role “keeping the Americans in” had.

Cynics might attribute this oversight to a reluctance to acknowledge that “peace” is not the highest value; sometimes, it takes war or the threat of war to defeat fascism, deter communist aggression and help people gain freedom from the oppression of ruthless dictators.

But a simpler explanation is more likely here: that the ostensible rationale for the award is not the actual reason. The award announcement hints at it here:

The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU’s most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights. The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.

While disguised as an award for past accomplishments, the prize is really a prod for future action. The Nobel committee wants to remind Europeans of how far they’ve come in order to keep them—if not get them—on the track to cooperation in solving today’s crisis and thus preserve the European ideal for future generations. If they can actually do that, it will be a prize well deserved, indeed.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.