This Nobel is About Political Decadence

This Nobel is About Political Decadence

By Daniel Henninger - October 15, 2009

So Donald Rumsfeld was right about Old Europe.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has taken it in the neck for awarding this year's Peace Prize to a nine-month old American presidency. There's been much mockery of pencil-necked Norwegian academics in faraway Oslo. This is unfair.

The committee said it chose Barack Obama for his "vision of . . . a world without nuclear weapons" and for "meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting." I'd say that completes the argument over old and new Europe. This is a Nobel of decadence.

Let's be clear. This decadence isn't primarily about Roman Polanski or Silvio Berlusconi's playboy club or French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand's adventures in Thailand. Though these are not irrelevant.

This Nobel is about political decadence.

"Decadence," an enduring word, emerged from the Latin "de-cadere," which means "to fall down." Decadence stripped bare means decay.

The unanswered question at the center of this odd Nobel is whether Barack Obama admires Old Europe for the same reasons it admires him.

When it was a vibrant garden of ideas, Europe gave the world more good things than one can count. Then it discovered the pleasures of the welfare state.

Old Europe now lives in a world of unpayable public pension obligations, weak job creation for its youngest workers, below-replacement birth rates, fat agricultural subsidies for farms dating to the Middle Ages, high taxes to pay for the public high-life, and history's most crucial proof of decay-the inability to finance one's armies. Only five of the 28 nations in NATO (the U.K., France, Turkey, Greece and Spain) achieve the minimum defense-spending benchmark of 2% of GDP.

The effect of arriving at a state of political decadence, of no longer being able to rise in the world, is that many people increasingly discover that soft moralism is a more congenial pastime than producing answers for the hard questions. As when David Cameron, the Tory leader and likely next British prime minister wonders: "The insatiable consumption and materialism of the past decade; has it made us happier or more fulfilled?"

This isn't to say that soft moralism is about nothing. But when matters such as climate change become life's primary concerns, it means one is going to spend more time preaching, which is easy, than doing, which is hard. One thinks of Nobelist Al Gore's unstoppable sermons.

Among the hardest questions Europe faced after World War II was the placement of anti-Soviet Pershing missiles on Europe's soil in 1983. Led by Helmut Kohl and Maggie Thatcher, Europe did something hard: It overcame its pacifists. A decade later, with the siege of Sarajevo, old Europe came to understand that making the hardest decisions was now beyond its reach.

Current hard questions include Pakistan and Afghanistan. Darfur is a hard question. Where to hold captured terrorists is a hard question.

Americans heard often the past four years how much Europe "hated" us because of that most complex of hard questions, the Iraq war. Unpopular wars cause bad feelings to be sure, but past some point Europe's antipathy toward the U.S. over Iraq began to sound a lot like moralistic decadence. It is a neurotic resentment of a superpower merely because it possesses the resources to do something Europe can no longer do, for good or ill.

What we are in the process of discovering is just how much President Obama's worldview coincides with that of the continent that claims to have seen itself reflected in him and its Peace Prize.

Mr. Obama is at a crossroads in his presidency. As George W. Bush departed the White House, he said his successor would one day arrive at the need to make a decision that made clear the reality of being the American president. That moment has arrived. It is the pending troop-deployment for Afghanistan, a very hard decision.

After that, Mr. Obama will go to Oslo Dec. 10 to receive the Prize itself. That will occur in the middle of the Dec. 7-18 United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen, whose goal is among the explicit reasons why Mr. Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize.

Between Afghanistan and Oslo, we're going to get some clarity about the Obama presidency.

Perhaps the most intriguing onlooker to this education is European Nicolas Sarkozy. On his good days, France's president seems aware of the political and economic decay he has inherited. So it was striking at the United Nations last month when Mr. Sarkozy said that Mr. Obama "dreams of a world without nuclear arms." Then, describing Iran's nuclear threat, he said, "At a certain moment hard facts will force us to make decisions."

By "us" he means that the U.S. must lead. In the West, only the U.S. president can still make decisions based on hard facts rather than recede into soft moralism. The day that is no longer true, the U.S. will finally deserve a decadent Nobel.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
25 Years After the Wall Fell, Challenges Remain
Cathy Young · November 12, 2014
Bret Stephens' Call for Robust U.S. Foreign Policy
Peter Berkowitz · November 16, 2014
Obama Always Puts U.S. on the Wrong Side
Mona Charen · November 12, 2014
Obama's Fourth-Quarter Agenda
David Ignatius · November 7, 2014

Daniel Henninger

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter