Sunanda K Datta-Ray: The peace prize and its discontents

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 14, 2012 19:34 hrs

The Nobel Peace Prize reminds me of Golda Meir’s scathing comment in 1978 that a couple of Oscars would have been more suitable for Egypt President Anwar Sadat and Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Nevertheless, the prize can serve a purpose. The award that European Union (EU) representatives received earlier this week was astutely timed to distract attention from squabbles over subsidies for Greece and Spain, Ireland’s problems, euro-zone uncertainties, British euro-scepticism, and misgivings about German economic power.

EU deserved the award for two reasons. First, it acknowledges the voluntary submersion of some aspects of national sovereignty in a greater ideal by 27 countries (soon to be 28) and more than 500 million people. Second, it’s a reminder to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation and the Gulf Coordinating Council that integration is not a pie-in-the-sky dream.

Kuala Lumpur, where the first East Asia Summit was held in 2005, may not have been Messina where France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg agreed in 1955 to cooperate in coal and steel. But it marked what Manmohan Singh called “the forerunner of an economic community” leading to “an arc of advantage and prosperity across Asia”.

But the three Nobel Peace Prize winners who objected to the award may have a point. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire and Adolfo Perez Esquivel say EU “is not seeking to realise Nobel’s demilitarised global peace order”. It can be pleaded that, as the UN vote on Palestine showed, foreign policy is one area where EU is not unanimous. While Britain abstained on statehood, France supported it. Europe’s role in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, or its boast of spreading liberal democratic values, are gratifying to Europeans. Not to Asians and Africans. But as European Commission President Herman Van Rompuy implied, EU’s real achievement is that it exists.

“What a bold test it was,” he said, “for Europe’s founders to say yes, yes we can, yes we can break the endless cycle of violence, we can stop the logic of vengeance, we can build a brighter future together.” Europe suffered the Hundred Years’ War between Britain and France and the wars of Spanish and Austrian succession. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was one of history’s epic tragedies. Europe has been invaded by Mongols, colonised by Turks and ruled by Moors. Christians have fought for independence in Spain and struggled for national liberation in the Balkans. The concept of “ethnic cleansing” was first recognised in the conflict between Greece and Turkey.

Two European wars dragged the entire world into the crater of a raging volcano, Europe’s mastery of science and technology only making them more deadly. India and Southeast Asia suffered in both. The US had to intervene. The rise of militant communism seared another line across Europe’s suffering face. Hungary and Czechoslovakia tried to resist and were crushed. The Berlin Wall enslaved a city. The Warsaw Pact and Marshall Plan competed for influence.

The prize acknowledges EU’s triumph over this turbulent past. But by no means does this indicate it is above controversy, or that posterity will regard all award-winners with respect. Pragmatic politician that he is, Henry Kissinger, the 1973 recipient, might not even regard the peacemaker title as particularly complimentary. His co-recipient, Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary who spent 11 years in French prisons, was more consistent in refusing the honour. The greatest slur on the decision-makers was to overlook Mahatma Gandhi.

It’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that since politics plays a large part in the award, it’s never bestowed on anyone who might embarrass a major Western power. The Dalai Lama is an ideal prize-winner less because of his Buddhist philosophy, but because he is a thorn in China’s side.

Having said all this, I will admit I like to think of Europe today as Asia tomorrow. When foreigners mention Kashmir, I remind them of Schleswig-Holstein and Alsace and Lorraine. Lord Palmerston famously said only three people understood the Schleswig-Holstein dispute — the Prince Consort who was dead, a Danish politician who was mad and he himself, and he had long ago forgotten all about it. Frenchmen draped the civic statues of Alsace-Lorraine in black in mourning because Prussia had taken the province.

One day, perhaps, Kashmir might be as much a forgotten memory as Schleswig-Holstein and Alsace-Lorraine in an Asia that is focussed on economic cooperation. A Nobel Peace Prize for the process might not be misplaced.

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