The Nobel Prize committee has taken some flak for awarding this year's peace prize to the European Union. "If the EU deserves one," tweeted Salon, "how long before they give one to 'The System'?" Excellent idea! For my money, the committee's problem wasn't that it got too abstract, but that it didn't get abstract enough. But instead of "the system," I would have given the award to "human history."
Don't get me wrong--I'm a big European Union fan; if the EU had a football team I would root for it. And I do believe that the EU project deserves some credit for the fact that peace in Europe is now something we take for granted. What's more, this peace isn't just an unintended side effect of that project. Though the primordial ancestor of the EU--the European Coal and Steel Community, which begat the European Community, which begat the European Union--was basically an economic arrangement that made member nations dependent on one another for basic resources, its founders did have peace in mind as the main point of the exercise.
However, the reason they had this in mind is that they knew that interdependence between nations tends to be a pacifying force. And, though they were probably wise to so pro-actively foster such interdependence, the fact is that economic interdependence probably would have grown without this assist. Economic interdependence has been expanding since time immemorial because human history has naturally tended to expand it, with or without farseeing European politicians. Ever since the stone age, a global economy has been in the cards.
At this point you may demand that I produce some evidence to back up what sounds like a crudely deterministic thesis. No way! If you want evidence you have to read a book I wrote about this a decade or so ago. It was called Nonzero, and in it I put the argument this way: Ever since the stone age, technological evolution has allowed and encouraged people to play more and more "non-zero-sum games" (roughly speaking, games that can have a win-win or lose-lose outcome) with more and more people, at greater and greater distances. Economic exchange is one of the most important such games. And what I called "non-zero-sumness" leads to more non-zero-sumness. Once people, following non-zero-sum logic, are trading briskly, this economic interdependence means that war would be more of a lose-lose game than it might otherwise be. So peace makes more sense--and peace in turn paves the way for more economic exchange, and so on.
Of course, this process isn't automatic. It's possible that, had far-seeing leaders not in 1951 created the European Coal and Steel Community, and had this not led to a series of free trade agreements among European nations, economic nationalism would have started trade wars that led to real wars. Still, it's not as if Europe is all that unusual in seeing erstwhile enemies turn into friends that are bound by economic ties. I used to make this point with the only-half-joking line that one reason I would never favor bombing Japan is that the Japanese built my minivan. But then my minivan got totaled, so I don't put it that way anymore. Still, I do think economic interdependence is one of the main guarantors of peace between the US and Japan. It's also the main reason US-China relations will probably weather the tempests that threaten them.
The irony is that, though the European Coal and Steel Community, and the economic integration it facilitated, dampened international tensions, the thing it grew into--the EU--has lately been heightening nationalism of a sometimes abrasive sort. I had high hopes for the European currency union when it started--and there was, in its defense, a certain amount of non-zero-sum logic behind it--but it may have been a bridge too far. The jury is still out.
But, whether or not the EU survives this crisis and continues to have an on-balance-pacifying effect, my central point is that the EU per se isn't the main source of the pacification. Economic integration, which is carried to deeper and deeper levels largely by technological evolution--and, in a sense, by history itself--is the main source.
I don't like "great man" (or "great person") theories of history, because they often give short shrift to the big forces at play in the world--such as this underrated tendency toward greater and greater non-zero-sumness. And I guess I feel the same way about "great institution" theories. If you're going to start awarding peace prizes to abstractions, then go all the way.
[Postscript: If you somehow resist the temptation to read my book, you might try Steve Pinker's more recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature . In arguing that violence, including war, has tended to decline as history has proceeded, Pinker cites growing economic interdependence along with a number of other factors.]