October 12, 2012

Hooray for Europe!

Romania, 1976 - I was shorter, but Communism was big.
Many of my friends on this side of the Atlantic (and on the other side of the Mediterranean) have reacted with derision and ridicule to the news that the European Union is receiving this year's Nobel Peace Prize. LOL, haha, gimmeabreak, etc.

Here are a few of my own reactions:


The eurozone is currently suffering through potentially catastrophic economic turmoil. While there were definite structural flaws in the new economic integration, and the major EU players have exacerbated matters by reducing rather than expanding short-term liquidity, the major crisis was triggered by our own financial brinkmanship and near-collapse here in the United States: The CDO and mortgage bubble, Lehman Bros, trillion-dollar budgetary black hole in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and much more. There's nothing funny about Europe's current woes in any case, especially given the increasing connectedness and see-saw dynamic between our two mega-economies, and the history of instability over there eventually costing Americans our own blood and treasure.


In a world that's increasingly out of balance -- and with violence and uncertainty flaring across the Middle East, the EU has been our key partner in promoting stability and progress. Its member states also comprise the bulk of our NATO allies. We should be wishing them well, and doing whatever we can to encourage and support them, not tear them down and poke fun.


When Alfred Nobel conceived of his peace prize, he wasn't thinking about ending conflicts in East Asia or Central Africa -- he was focused on Europe. The EU s the embodiment of many of those hopes and aspirations -- as the Nobel Committee put it:

The work of the EU represents "fraternity between nations", and amounts to a form of the "peace congresses" to which Alfred Nobel refers as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.


All those childhood summers spent bouncing around Europe during the 1970s involved no end of cumbersome border crossings between East and West, within the Communist Bloc, and even between some of the Western European democracies. Borders and virtual barriers were very evident, and not only because of the Soviet domination over half the continent. Europe's divisions went back centuries and the animosities were still very fresh. Indigenous Muslims and Gypsies were barely tolerated, if at all. And of course, the despair, privations and terror of Communist rule were as overwhelming as they were implausible. And it was all very real. Just visiting Berlin today is an out-of-body experience, as the once stark dividing line remains only as a course of paving stones, a short segment of the old wall, and memorial markers where East Germans were killed attempting to cross into freedom. The very idea of East Germany or exit visas seems so remote, and yet 25 years ago it was a reality.


Perhaps, as Americans living in the here and now, we measure the world too much by what we -- not others -- have achieved recently, rather than in any other generation. The challenges we face today can blind us to the struggles of every other nation, forgetting that the post-9/11 mirror poles used to check for bombs under our cars were once used in Berlin to stop East Germans from escaping between the axles.

As early as 1821, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams: “Even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.” Such arrogance and exceptionalism have been among our greatest flaws and most powerful of inducements to keep pushing forward and saving the world. But this week, a little humility is in order, and yes, some appreciation for the dedication, aspirations and achievements of others -- especially those we call our friends.

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