The European Union: A Worthy Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel

The bestowal of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize on the European Union caused considerable protests and ridicule, not least in Norway. However, in my opinion the Nobel committee’s interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s will was well-founded. «The United States of Europe» was a widely acclaimed long-term goal of the peace movement that inspired Alfred Nobel. For instance, the German peace activist Bertha von Suttner, who suggested the institution of the peace prize to Nobel and who was the first woman to win it (in 1905), supported European union (as appears here).

The Nobel committee writes in the announcement of its decision regarding the 2012 prize that «The [European] union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.» It argues that «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.»

The American historian Sandi E. Cooper, author of a standard work on the European peace movement between 1815 and 1914,  would agree. The last sentence in her book is: «The legacy of nineteenth century pacifism is modern liberal internationalism, most recently adapted in the new European Community, with headquarters in Brussels and Strasbourg» (Cooper 1991, s. 212).

In this posting I survey the close historical interrelationship between plans for peace and schemes for European unity, with a particular emphasis on the arguments over Europe of the nineteenth century peace movement. The posting is a translated version of a comment I published in Norwegian just before the 10 December award ceremony in Oslo.

Peace as a European problem

Until the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, the question of international war and peace was primiarly a question of the relatons between European great powers. Europe dominated the world and thus decided whether there was peace or war. Until 1945 large-scale war mainly hit Europe. That partly explains why in Europe war became a public issue at a very early stage.

However, also Roman law and Christian ideology contributed. The Roman empire based its claim to supranational rule on the benefits of a Rome-enforced peace (pax romana). This notion transformed itself into the medieval idea of a supranational Christendom, with the holy Roman emperor as the secular head and the pope as the spiritual guide. One of their most important tasks was to prevent war among Christians.

Due to the advance of Islam in the southeast, culminating with the conquest of Constantinople in  1453, Islam’s parallel retreat in Spain, and the spread of Christianity in the north, completed by the conversion of Lithuania in 1386, Christendom came practically to equate geographic Europe. The incidence of war in Europe grew with the emergence of independent city states and territorial states. The supranational influence of the emperor decreased. The Church developed a theory of just war, but still claimed for the pope a right to condone wars and mediate between states in conflict.

Internal peace and a common front against Islam were the main concerns of the early advocates of Christian unity across the emerging states in Europe. The French publicist Pierre Dubois (?1250-?1312) is often seen as an early supporter of European union. Dubois argued that the pope should relinquish his worldly powers and the imperial dignity be transferred to the king of France. The king should then head a new crusade to the Holy Land. Also Dante Aligheri, pope Bonifatius VIII and Giles of Rome, publishing between 1280 and 1315, are sometimes considered early Europeanists. However, the discourse of all these writers was still fundamentally Christian. None of their plans used the words «Europe» or «European».

Maximilien de Béthune, greve av Sully

Further political and religious conflict contributed to intensified state-building and advanced a secular, Machiavellian concept of the state.  More people realised that a voluntary federation of sovereign states was necessary to obtain lasting peace. The first modern plan for European union was formulated by the prime minister of the French king Henry IV, the duke of Sully (Maximilien de Béthune, 1560-1641), towards the end of the last confessional conflict (the Thirty Years» War, 1618-1648). Sully’s Grand dessein was modern in the sense that it prescribed a political federation of sovereign and equal states to promote peace and joint prosperity, based on permanent borders, interstate negotiations, a balance of power, religious toleration and free trade.

Enlightenment projects for peace and unity

Increasingly frequent and bloody wars during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries motivated more projects similar to Sully’s. The most celebrated such plans from this Enlightenment period were published by William Penn in 1693, by John Bellers in 1710, and by the abbot of Saint-Pierre (Charles-Irénée Castel) in 1713-1717.

Penn took the (Dutch) United Provinces as his model, whereas Bellers looked to the Helvetic Confederation (Switzerland) and to his own United Kingdom (the English and Scottish crowns were joined in 1707). These democratically inclined thinkers planned a union of constitutionally ruled states. In his Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe (1693), Penn suggested a European parliament to resolve conflicts. The number of votes of the deputies should reflect the economic clout of the member states.

Penn wished to include the Russian and Ottoman empires in his European union. Sully had dismissed such a possibility, as did most later peace theorists. For them, the Russians and the Turks were aliens, representing «oriental despotism». In his Projet pour rendre la Paix perpetuelle en Europe Saint-Pierre thus invited only the princes of Christian Europe west of Russia to participate. Every member state should have one vote. Disputes should be resolved by an arbitration award to be decided by majority vote.

The polymath Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) presented plans for European peace and unity too. The Lutheran Leibnitz advocated Christian unity and co-operated with Protestant and Catholic princes as well as the Habsburg-Roman emperor in Vienna. In 1677 og again in 1715 he published tracts advocating a Dantean European «empire» with the Holy Roman Empire as its core, ruled by a council or senate composed of representatives of the member states.

The word «Christendom» more or less disappeared from official discourse during the Enlightenment. It was replaced by «Europe», understood as a community of interest and identity, based on the balance of power, on progress through the free ciculation of goods, services, capital, labour, knowledge and ideas, and on reason.

Émeric Crucé (1590-1648) argued along these lines in his peace plan Le nouveau Cynée (1683), which among other things advocated common measurement standards and a common currency. A permanent inter-governmental assembly meeting in Venice in which even the Ottoman empire should take part, would arbitrate conflicts. Éméric de Vattel (1714-1767) described Europe as «a political system in which the nations […] are bound together by their relations and their various interests into a single body. It is [….] a sort of republic, whose members – each independent but all bound together by a common interest – united for the maintenance of order and the preservation of liberty».

Montesquieu (1689-1755) emphasised the pacifying effect of international trade. David Hume (1711-1776) argued that «nothing is more favourable to the rise of politeness and learning, than a number of neighbouring and independent states, connected together by commerce and policy”. Adam Smith (1723-1790) held that laissez-faire economic policies, free trade and non-intervention were the best means to promote peace and progress.  Especially after the French revolution (1789) liberals and radicals also came to link democracy with peace. William Godwin (1756-1836) thus argued that «democracies are inherently peaceful because the vast majority of common people will always strive to avoid war.»

The emergence of liberal internationalism

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham

Notably Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) shaped the emergence of liberal internationalism ( and thus inspired later liberal international theory and neofunctiionalist integration theory). They thought that the propensity of states for war could be overcome by promoting common economic interests, law, communication and understanding among nations. Bentham called his scheme a Plan for Universal and Perpetual Peace (1843). He suggsted a «congress» of states, but ignored the need for supranational authority. Instead he counted on the «tribunal of public opinion» to institute sanctions against states that violated international law. Mill regarded trade as the best measure against war.

Another prominent nineteenth century spokesman of liberal internationalism was the radical free trader and anti-slavery activist Richard Cobden (1804-1865).  Cobden stressed the ability of modern communications to weave people into a web of prosperity and toleration. Cobden and Victor Hugo were among the most famous participants at the third international peace congress, in Paris in 1849, devoted to the creation of the United States of Europe (see below).

Immanuel Kant«s (1724-1804) essay Zum ewigen Frieden (Perpetual Peace, 1795) went further. Kant too believed trade helps advance peace. However, more than the British thinkers he emphasised the political preconditions to peace. According to Kant, perpetual peace presupposed a democratic constitution in every country, international law based on an association of free states, and a «cosmopolitan» or global law instituting «universal hospitality» (respect of the rights of all «reasonable» human beings  as citizens of the world). In international relations, Kant advocated a gradually expanding society of nations (civitas gentium).

Kant was strongly influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who in his critque of Saint-Pierre argued that international peace cannot occur until human reason is transformed, educated, un-alienated by a good society and developed to its fullest potential. Rousseau thought that European unity, while desirable, required a revolution that could only be brought about through unacceptably violent means.

The United States of Europe as peace guarantor

Claude Henri de Saint-Simon
Claude Henri de Saint-Simon

The eccentric count of Saint-Simon (Claude Henri de Rouvroy, 1760-1825), an early socialist and trailblazer for sociology and positivism, was more radical. His De la réorganisation de la Societé Européenne, ou de la nécessité et de moyens de rassambler les peuples de l’Europe en un seul corps politique en conservant à chacun son independance nationale (1814) was probably the most ambitious proposal for a federal reorganization of Europe ever.

Saint-Simon’s plan came to influence most of the European peace projects of the next generation.  All of them advocated a federal government and argued that in the modern world war was a cruel waste of resources. But Saint-Simon and his successors insisted that the federation must be a parliamentary federation of democratic nations rather than a confederation of conservative governments such as the Concert of Europe. Now, after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, radicals saw internal justice and external peace as two sides of the same coin.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and Guiseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) were among those who developed Saint-Simon’s plan further. To Mazzini humanity was not a cosmopolitan world divided into immutable nation-states, but a whole, created by God, uniting peoples in the conscience of a common ancestry and a common future. In 1834, Mazzini founded Young Europe, an international association of progressive nationalists in defense of equality and fraternity among all nations. Its statutes defined a European federation as «a unity that will be free, spontaneous, such as would exist in a regular Federation in which all the peoples sit in complete equality […] each remaining master of its own interests, its local affairs, its special faculties».

Among other continental peace plans inspired by Saint-Simon may be mentioned Pierre Leroux’s Organon des vollkommenen Friedens (1837); Gustave d’Eichtal’s De l’Unité Européenne (1840); Victor Considérant’s De la Politique générale et du rôle de la France en Europe (1840) and Constantin Pecquereur’s De la Paix (1841). By now, the notion of «the United States of Europe» had become well-known.

The organised peace movement

After the Vienna peace settlement of 1815 a number of peace societies, leagues and associations emerged, engaging in a prolonged battle for peace in Europe. Their popularity varied over time. Most governments and newspapers ridiculed them as Utopian. Still, the movement grew, notably towards the end of the nineteenth century, mobilising millions of Europeans and Americans in campaigns against the arms race and nationalist rivalry in Europe. The peace movement paved the way for a many international institutions and organization that have survived to the present day, for instance The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague and the The inter-parlamentary Union. As I mentioned, Sandi E. Cooper also regards the EU as part of its heritage.

At first the peace movement was dominated by unorthodox Christian pacifists from the United States and Britain, notably Quakers (like Penn). The first peace society was the New York Peace Society, founded in 1815 by the Quaker David L. Dodge. Quakers also founded the British Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace in 1816. Gradually, however. liberals, radicals, democrats and also socialists and feminists joined. With members from the moderate right to the socialist left, from Christian fundamentalists to atheists, and from the Unied States to Russia, the movement was bound to be divided by disputes. However, over time there emerged considerable agreement regarding overarching goals, like (more) democracy, human rights, free trade and other free communications between nations, in addition to the extension of international law, compulsory arbitration in conflicts, the establishment of an international court of arbitration, and for the long term, a federation of democratic European states, The United States of Europe.

The early American and British societies made many attempts to mobilise Continental Europeans for their ideas. Especially the «learned blacksmith» Elihu Burritt agitated for a European «congress of nations» on the American federal model. A peace society was established in Geneva by count Jean-Jacques de Sellon  in 1830. But the Hugenot Sellon’s motivation was primarily religious and moral, not political. Most members belonged to the higher bourgeoisie, and tended, like Sellon, to be sceptical towards democracy.

International peace conferences

The European and American peace societies organised themselves locally, nationally and, eventually, at the international level. International congresses were held at uneven intervals from 1816 until the congress planned in Vienna in September 1914 had to be cancelled due to war. After the First World War congresses resumed and continued until the new war in 1939.

The first international peace conference was held by the British and American peace societies in London in 1843. In order to encourage the continental peace movement the next congresses were held in Brussels (1848), Paris (1849) and Frankfurt am Main (1850), when they returned to Britain (London 1851, Manchester 1852, Edinburgh 1853). Still, most delegates to all conferences between1843 and 1853 emanated from the U.S. and Great Britain.

Victor Hugo

The inaugural speech by the French author Victor Hugo at the peace congress of Paris in 1849 has become famous:

«we shall see those two immense communities, the United States of America and the United States of Europe, holding hands across the sea. […] A day will come when you, France – you, Russia – you, England – you, Germany – all of you, nations of the Continent, will, without losing your distinctive qualities and your glorious individuality, be blended into a superior unity and constitute a European fraternity […] by the universal suffrage of the nations, by the vener-able arbitration of a great sovereign senate, which will be to Europe what the Parliament is to England, what the Diet is to Germany, what the legislative As-sembly is to France.»

However, 1849 was the year of the counter-revolution, and few members of the radical peace movement on the Continent favoured a federation in which absolutist princes participated alongside more liberal governments. This was one of the reasons why American federalists like Burritt received little support. There was also scant sympathy for absolute pacifism on the Continent. Most continental peace activists accepted defensive war as well as armed resistance against authoritarian rule.

The Crimean war (1853-56), the American civil war (1861-65) and the Franco-Prussian war (1870) were great setbacks for the peace movement. After 1853, no universal peace congress took place until 1889. The peace activists were surprised that public opinion actually rallied behind their governments» war policies. It seemed like democracy – at any rate the extension of the suffrage – and nationalism encouraged war rather than peace. Many peace activists lost faith in popular opinion and instead stepped up their efforts at influencing governments directly.

The American peace society, regarding slavery as a greater evil than war, supported the northern states in the civil war. By contrast, the British peace society continued to abhor all violence and in 1864 criticised nationalism as a «poor, low, selfish, un-Christian idea [….], fatal not only to peace but to all progress in liberty and good government.»

Frederic Passy


In 1867 two competing centres emerged in the European peace movement, one based in Paris and leaning towards the right and the other in Geneva, leaning to the left.  In Paris the French economist and politician Frédéric Passy (1822-1912) established the Ligue internationale et permanente de la paix. In 1901, Passy shared the first Nobel peace prize with the founder of the International Red Cross, Henry Dunant. Passy’s peace movement was dominated by moralist, religious and anti-military attitudes.

In the same year  in Geneva, Charles Lemonnier founded the Ligue internationale de la paix et de la liberté, inspired by Kant, Saint-Simon and the American Federalist Fathers. Among the reportedly six thousand participants at the founding congress were Victor Hugo, John Stuart Mill and Guiseppe Garibaldi.  The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin argued that «there is only one way freedom, justice and peace may prevail in European international relations and banish civil war from the European family: by establishing the United States of Europe!»  The Geneva congress adopted as its primary goal to campaign for European federation, and the league started publishing a periodical named Les États Unis de L’Europe.

While Passy’s Ligue was politically and confessionally neutral, Lemonnier and his supporters were radical and secular. They saw themselves as progeny of the French Revolution and advocated the replacement of the monarchy by a republic, opposed the influence of the church and favoured democracy and human rights (eventually women’s liberation and gender equality too). At the founding congress Garibaldi called for revolution and French socialists denounced capitalist oppression. Lemonnier’s league was not pacifist on principle.

Christian Lous Lange

The moderate line of Passy made most headway. His main objectives were international disarmament and compulsory arbitration. The Universal Parliamentary Peace Union, established in 1876 with parliamentarians from many European countries as members, rallied behind these demands. Arbitration and peace societies multiplied, emerging in Denmark, Sweden and Norway 1882-3. In 1889 The Interparlamentary Conference for international arbitration was founded, followed by the The Inter-Parlamentary Union and The Inter-Parliamentary Bureau in 1892. The energetic Norwegian Christian Lange (father of the later foreign minister Halvard Lange) worked as secretary general for The Inter-Parliamentary Union in Brussels from 1909 to 1933 (except during the war years, when he was in Norway). Lange received the Nobel peace prize together with the Swedish Social Democrat Hjalmar Branting in 1921.

Growing nationalism, imperialism and armament in the 1880s and 1890s led to a resumption of the international peace congresses.  The first such congress since 1853 took place in 1889. The Universal Peace Congress of Rome in 1891 invited the European peace societies to make the United States of Europe its main goal. The congress of 1892 called for European federation along the lines advocated by Lemonnier. It established a permanent secretariat, the International Peace Bureau, which still exists.

Four different types of peace societies were represented at the congress of 1892: Anglo-American religious pacifists, secular pacifists, societies modelled on Lemonnier’s federalist Geneva league, and og societies supporting the extension of international law and arbitration, notably the International Arbitration and Peace Associaton of Great Britain and Ireland, founded by Hodgson Pratt in 1880. Many women had by now become involved.

Institutionalising peace 

The establishment of an international court of voluntary arbitration was the main result of the inter-governmental first and second peace conferences in The Hague  in 1899 og 1907 respectively. Disappointed, some peace activists revived radical plans for a federal Europe. Now British liberals took the lead. Sir Max Waechter (1837-1924), a businessman and art collector born in Stettin, Germany (today Poland), embraced the idea of a United States of Europe in 1909 and founded a European Unity League in 1913 (receiving the support of Bertha von Suttner, among others). Declaring its agreement, the British peace society advocated a full merger of national sovereignty. The British Quakers had called for the United States of Europe already in 1910, the British National Peace League doing the same the next year.

But at the same time as parts of British public opinion turned more favourable to European union, continental Europeiske radicals turned against. The issue was whether tsarist Russia ought to join. Democrats and radicals outside of Germany objected.

Towards the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 there was a rapprochement between the liberal, middle class peace movement and the socialist workers» movement. The Second International considered imperialism and militarism and expression of capitalist competition and warned that if employers provoked a war, the working class would refuse to fight. Jean Jaurès defined the proletariat as «the masses of men who collectively love peace and hate war.» The Basel conference of the Second International in 1912 called the proletariat «the herald of world peace» and declared «war on war». Continental Catholic socialists and anarchists, inspired by French intellectuals such as Charles Fourier, Philippe Buchez and Joseph Proudhon, agitated for a decentralised, federal Europe. However, the Second International broke down in 1914 due to its failure to remained united in the face of war. Most of its member parties, like many peace activists, rallied around the national colours of their respective governments.

The war at first led to renewed agitation from the peace movement for a federal Europe. The calls redoubled after the war, when Penn’s essay and excerpts from Saint-Pierre and Rousseau were republished in London. However, the ardour soon cooled, and the peace movement came to support an inter-governmental league rather than a European federation. By January 1917, most European governments too had agreed to the suggestion by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to create a League of Nations.

The old headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva, now used by the United Nations

The League of Nations was established in Geneva in 1919 and was the first permanent inter-governmental organisation. The League achieved successes as well as fiascos, but failed in its ultimate objective, to prevent another world war. In 1946 it was replaced by the United Nations, which has become a truly universal organisation. In Europe, the European Union is a regional, more ambitious successor to the League of Nations. As the Nobel comittee argues, it has helped prevent war on the Continent for over sixty years. Just as the nineteenth century peace movement and earlier peace planners imagined.


Cooper, Sandi E. (1991), Patriotic Pacifism. Waging War on War in Europe, 1815-1914. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Hay, D. (1957), Europe. The Emergence of an Idea (Edinburgh.  Edinburg University Press).

Heater, D. (1992), The Idea of European Unity (Leicester: Leicester University Press).

Hinsley, Francis H. (1963), Power and the Pursuit of Peace.  Theory and Practice in the History of Relations Between States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Knutsen, T.L. (1997), A History of International Relations Theory, 2nd edn. (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Nedrebø, Tore (2010), Past and Present Sources of European Union. A Comparative, Historical-Institutionalist Analysis (doctoral dissertation, University of Bergen).

Pagden, A. (ed.) (2002), The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press).

Rougemont, D. de (1966), The Idea of Europe (New York: Macmillan).

Wilson K. and Dussen, J.v.d. (eds.) (1995) The History of the Idea of Europe (London: Routledge).

Surveys of international peace confresses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: og

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