The award is in recognition of a continent’s journey from wilful self-destruction to a state where war cannot be imagined The Schuman Plan tied together France’s steel industry and Germany’s coke and coal supplies The transformation of Europe is deep and abiding and can sustain itself without the U.S.
The European Union’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize has occasioned much scornful laughter, some of it deserved. Yes, there are undoubtedly other worthy laureates, such as Malala Yousafzai, the young and courageous Pakistani peace activist shot this week by the Pakistani Taliban. But it is worth reflecting for a moment on the underlying logic of this award, and making a clear distinction between the grand European project on the one hand, and its troubled outgrowth, the Eurozone, on the other.
Tony Judt’s brilliant history of the continent, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, quotes Hegel’s wistful aphorism that “world history is not the soil in which happiness grows. Periods of happiness are empty pages in it”. The European Union has won the Nobel Prize for a simple reason: its post-war chapters are mostly composed of empty, happy years — relative to the preceding centuries of cyclical war and cataclysm.
It may be difficult for newer generations to understand this, but there was simply no guarantee that the continent would come to see prosperity and peace after 1945. It had suffered unimaginable ethnic cleansing, some of which was prosecuted by the victorious allies themselves. Western Europe itself was in tatters. Germany had 20 million people homeless. In France, vigilante groups would slaughter 10,000 people accused of collaborating with Nazis. Between 1945 and 1949, a majority of Germans held the opinion that “Nazism was a good idea, badly applied”. Hunger was widespread, and worsened by the vicious winter of 1947. There was no assurance that wartime resistance groups would disarm willingly. As the German joke went, “Enjoy the war, the peace will be terrible”. And it was terrible — but then, more quickly than almost anyone could have imagined, it was not.
It might be argued that, from such an enfeebled position, Europe would likely have grown rapidly anyway. But it might also have torn itself apart before it got anywhere.
Against these uncertainties, the Schuman Plan, which tied together France’s steel industry and Germany’s coke and coal supplies in a resource cartel, and became the foundation of later European integration, was a key moment. It was an ingenious way of calming bitter Franco-German distrust, and it worked spectacularly. There had been customs unions in Europe as early as the 19th century, but this was something else altogether. By 1954, France had dropped its bitter opposition to West German rearmament — a remarkable turnaround, scarcely a decade after the Nazi occupation.
The critics argue that Europe is undeserving of these plaudits because the United States played the crucial role. To some extent, this is true. The French would never have tolerated an armed West German state were it not for the protection of NATO, formed in 1949 with American military power at its core. As Lord Ismay famously noted that year, the point of NATO was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”.
The Alliance may have frayed in recent years, in Afghanistan and Libya, but it succeeded eminently in all three of those core objectives, and could not have done so without U.S. troops, tanks and nuclear weapons sprawled across Europe’s previously war-torn territory. At its peak, the U.S. stationed 277,342 in Europe — more than double the peak numbers in Afghanistan.
American cash was also important. By 1952, when the Marshall Plan finished, the U.S. had spent $13 billion on assistance to Europe, far outstripping all its previous aid spending combined. In current terms, Marshall spending would amount to over $100 billion. All this allowed the sheltered Europeans to build up welfare states, which helped dampen the extreme populist movements that plagued the first half of the century.
And yet, none of this negates Europe’s own hand in the process. After all, the United States also kept a major presence in Asia but, there, wounds did not heal as they did in Europe. Compare the pairing of France and Germany, where war is now utterly unimaginable, with South Korea and Japan, two rivals that still view one other with considerable suspicion. Only two months ago, Japan angrily condemned South Korea’s “illegal occupation” of islets in the Sea of Japan.
France and Germany squabble over economic issues, but neither harbours such grievances or suspicion. European fear of Germany’s military power is confined to football chants and now politically incorrect British comedy.
Even as American forces trickle out of the continent to turn their attention to the Pacific, this condition prevails. The transformation of Europe is deep and abiding. Europe could not have achieved peace without the U.S., but the European Union — and its institutional predecessors — still did much of the heavy lifting.
Europe’s peace was an admittedly ugly one. It accommodated fascists, in Spain and Portugal; allowed colonial atrocities, in places like Kenya and Algeria; and struggled to deal with mass ethnic violence on its doorstep, in Yugoslavia. But, in the final instance, the core members of the European project never went to war to settle their differences, and have now arrived at a point where war is unthinkable. That is a stark exception in world history, and a feat that vanishingly few groups of countries can claim to have achieved.
(Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University, and a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)