The Nobel Prize for Politics

Alfred Nobel (Wikimedia Commons)

The controversy and dismissive snark over the awarding of the European Union the Nobel Prize for Peace has sparked some discussion about the nature of the award.  I have long considered the Nobel Prize for Peace a kind of ultimate award for politics, bestowed for entering the arena and advocating and affecting extraordinary change on the international level.

We certainly cannot blame the committee for occasionally getting it wrong or engaging in aspirational choices. No one’s (or one body’s) judgment is perfect. The committee’s choices are more often than not quite extraordinary people and institutions who deserve more attention and notice than they have received so far, and live up to their reputation as our world’s finest representatives. Even President Obama was probably misinterpreted as an aspirational choice.  His award was more likely a political punctuation mark to an historical campaign that opened a new volume in our long, dramatic and often tortuous racial history.  It was the committee’s homage to Martin Luther King, a grand epigraph for an extraordinary new era dawning. Working overseas and watching the world’s reaction to his election, the Prize suited the international community’s understanding of his — and our — achievement, an American Velvet Revolution.

I could argue with the current award because it goes, amorphously, to the European Union – a large, multinational, multilateral, and multi-agency organization that has a difficult enough time defining itself as the awards committee might define it.  Moreover, Alfred Nobel specifically designated the peace prize in his will to a person working towards concord, disarmament, or peace conferences.  This places, I believe, a specific onus of specific moral agency on the individual, and the committee has forgotten the primacy of people’s action in achieving real, lasting political change by awarding the European Union this prize.

It is true that the Nobel committee has awarded many (nearly a quarter) of the peace prizes to institutions or “peace congresses,” (a favorite of Nobel) and in many respects this is worthwhile and appropriate because individuals can only do so much before they must use civil society, organizations and assemblies to achieve meaningful political ends.  One man shouting in a forest is alone and unheard and ineffective unless the trees follow him.  

But somewhere along the way the size and scale of the organization becomes either governmental or quasi-governmental, bureaucratic and automated.  That is what the European Union and the United Nations are today, for example. They are by design and in fact very different from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (the U.S. chapter of which I worked for) and Mèdecins Sans Frontiers, which are private groups created by individuals to come together around a common cause to achieve some moral end.  I think this is the root of the confusion over the awarding of the prize to the EU.  You would no more award the EU the prize as you would the Internal Revenue Service.  There is no connection between the moral and political agency of a public organization and the organization’s duties itself, which are defined by somebody else — their leaders, the voters, the citizens. There is a much closer connection to an individual’s moral agency, or a smaller, private organization’s activities, and the prize.

I admit there is little discussing what the EU has achieved, as it has progressed and consolidated an awesome counter-historical experiment in peace and reconciliation in Europe after hundreds of years of war, conflict, and race hatred. Peace and democracy have spread west, then east, and now poise on the brink of the Balkans; former warring parties there are reconciling in order to join. It is an exceptional model other organizations (the African Union is only the most specific) have followed. This is all to the good.

But who did this and by what political agency? Politics is an intimately human endeavor and it must be articulated, led, and followed.  Adenauer, Schuman, Spaak – these men sketched the architecture of the Union. King  Juan Carlos eased Spain towards democracy and reintegration with Europe.  Stepjan Mesic negotiated Croatia out of its nationalist past toward a future with NATO and the European Union, transforming the Balkans in the process.  Political change does not occur by happenstance, bureaucratic inertia, or the pure “administration of things”.

The EU operates by consensus.  This means that all at once the EU is at the same time the most political and least political major multilateral institutional in the world.  What I mean by most political is that every significant decision the EU takes must be argued and debated out and then agreed to by each and every member state.  So when a decision is made, the EU can act powerfully and effectively, but under no individual country’s leadership.

But like the United States under the Articles of Confederation, it is incapable of acting without consensus, which limits its range of action.  It also has no mechanism to act politically – under this definition I mean contentiously – forcing not simply compromise but a majority solution that requires less than the whole in order to act as a whole. (The bargain being the losers will be winners under a different arrangement later.  Under the current system, there are no winners and no losers, simply all or nothing.)

The missing mechanism of contentious political action has been noted before, of course, and it is a signature aspect of European political culture.  Europeans are unwilling to cede sovereignty to a federal structure, a decision that is important to respect.  But it is also important to understand how that limits the European Union to take decisions on truly contentious issues such as war and peace.  And in that case, it places into question whether it can achieve Nobel’s vision of peace, disarmament, and international concord.  Only under the robust action of then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy did the EU, for example, lead on ending the war between Russia and Georgia, but it’s not clear whether the agreement brokered will be both just and lasting.

Politics is hard.  The individuals and groups who have won the prize worked hard, sacrificed much, and fought hard, and often for very little. There is perhaps no better contrast than that of Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited the United States recently. Awarded the Peace Prize more than 20 years ago, she endured two decades of house arrest, during which her husband died abroad and she was denied access to her family. Her father, who negotiated her country’s independence, was assassinated and expunged from his nation’s historical record. She was maligned by the ruling junta for years. Her initial election to the Burmese assembly was annulled, and she was only recently (re)elected as a single representative to the parliament after years of single-minded effort.

It is hard to imagine a single member of the European Parliament from Western Europe tolerating so much for so little.