The theory behind the EU is simply wrong

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Nobel Hall at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, where award recipients are announced.

Article Highlights

  • News that the EU won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize undoubtedly gladdened the hearts of global governance advocates.

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  • Given today’s parlous state of affairs in the EU, the future isn’t looking all that attractive. @AmbJohnBolton

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  • The EU’s underlying theory is simply wrong, to the dismay of those who believe the EU would ensure peace in Europe.

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  • If government in Ottawa or Washington seems out of touch, what will happen on a global scale? @AmbJohnBolton

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News that the European Union won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize undoubtedly gladdened the hearts of global governance advocates everywhere. Although the idea of universal government has appeared in many formulations over the years, most contemporary approaches use the EU as a model for where the march toward “one world” will ultimately end. After all if “global problems require global solutions,” the continent-wide EU strikes many as a paradigm for the entire planet. A cornerstone of the EU’s founding justification, and the underlying rationale for granting it the peace prize, was that European economic and political integration would quell the troublesome forces of nationalism that have been the basic, enduring cause of war around the world.

On the other hand, given today’s parlous state of affairs in the EU, especially for those nations using the euro as their common currency, the future isn’t looking all that attractive. In fact, Norway’s peace prize committee was manifestly trying to throw the EU a lifeline, once again demonstrating just how politicized its decisions have become in recent decades. The eurozone is in crisis; economic growth has stalled; Greeks and Spaniards are rioting and protesting German hegemonism; and the war on terror continues unabated while the EU largely stands on the sidelines. In the traditionally euro-skeptic United Kingdom, public pressure for fundamental changes in Britain’s relationship with the EU is rising, and even in Germany, heartland of European integrationist sentiment, fellow feeling for those ungrateful Mediterranean countries is steadily declining.

"In short, the EU’s underlying theory is simply wrong, to the dismay of those who believe the EU would ensure peace in Europe." -John R. BoltonThis is hardly the way it was supposed to be, with nationalism gradually eroding and “Europeanness” emerging to replace it. To the contrary, in response to palpable economic distress, and the clear lack of leadership from top leaders either of the EU itself or its member states, nationalism is the default reaction. And why not? Nationalism, like religion and political ideology, is not simply a “superstructure” reflecting underlying economic forces as Karl Marx theorized. Instead, such social forces have their own unique causes and consequences. And while nationalism can certainly exacerbate actual substantive disagreements among countries, the real differences themselves are often entirely sufficient to cause tensions and ultimately hostilities. In short, the EU’s underlying theory is simply wrong, to the dismay of those who believe the EU would ensure peace in Europe.

In fact, if increasing the power and intrusiveness of the regulatory state; reducing the roles of elected officials and transferring their roles to bureaucrats in a distant capital; and squandering the ability to protect and defend oneself against hostile external forces is the goal, then the EU is certainly the model to follow. But doubters might be pardoned if they are concerned precisely because “sharing sovereignty” with other nations in the EU format, or though worldwide institutions, does not inevitably solve global problems. National governments, even in constitutional democracies, are hard enough to control, and the more distant the government from the individual citizen, the harder it gets. If government in Ottawa or Washington seems arrogant, and out of touch, what will happen on a global scale?

For democratic, constitutional societies, the primary question raised by proposals for global governance is measuring whether problem-solving capabilities are actually enhanced and whether the citizenry’s control over governmental decision making is reduced. In case after case, the argument for global government rests purely on aspirations for better results. The concrete reality is that involving nations without a history of respect for individual liberty and constitutional restraints on the authority of governmental power only threatens individual liberty.

Characterizing as “global” problems like war, disease, the environment, poverty and the like obscures more than it reveals. In fact, there are profound differences over how to handle such hopelessly broad “issues” that will not be corrected, and may well be exacerbated, by moving to global decision-making forums. How much of a role did the UN play, for example, in the great battle between freedom and Communism in the second half of the 20th century? None, precisely because the conflict itself was embedded in the very structure of the UN’s membership. Fundamental issues of war and peace will not be more easily resolved through creating diaphanous worldwide institutions when basic differences in interests and values remain part of the human condition.

The same can be said for all the other global issues trotted out to justify reducing the power of nation-states, such as climate change. While the scientific debate over the extent and causes of global warming continues, the arguments of those who want more international control over individual economic activity and national economies remain unchanged. We can infer with high confidence that those advocating greater governmental (or intergovernmental) authority would be making exactly the same arguments if the problem were global cooling rather than global warming. That is their real objective, and global warming is merely the latest sales vehicle. In short, at the public policy level, this is less an argument about climate change than it is about power versus liberty. And these policy debates are best had in real democratic societies, at the national or local level, rather than in artificial arenas like the massive Kyoto and Copenhagen intergovernmental conferences on climate change. In fact, neither of those media extravaganzas produced workable results, which should tell us something about how global problems might actually best be solved.

Unfortunately, global governance is a subject that will not disappear, given its dreamy attractiveness and the persistence of its advocates. In the United States, people dissatisfied with the results obtained in domestic political debates almost invariably try to internationalize these issues, where they expect to obtain better results than in Congress or the states. Opponents of the death penalty want to go global, as do gun-control advocates, abortion proponents, and so on ad infinitum. The real issue here is not which side you take in these or many other debates that most people consider “domestic.” The real issue is who should appropriately decide them: democratic peoples in constitutional systems, or government bureaucrats negotiating in remote, unaccountable international organizations?

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security.

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