Friday, October 12, 2012

A question of organizational identity

When the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to President Obama in 2009, commentators wondered which Obama was being honoured - the actual man who had been in office for less than a year and had as yet made little impact on world peace, or the symbolic hope for the future that America's first black president represented.

Today's announcement that the Peace Prize would be awarded to the European Union has provoked no less surprise. Europe has clearly achieved some extraordinary achievements over the past sixty years, including forming a bond between France and Germany and intervening in Namibia and the Balkans.

But which organization was responsible for these achievements? The European Union was only created in 1993. Many of the achievements lauded by the Nobel committee and by other commentators were done by previous organizations that no longer exist, including the European Coal and Steel Community and the EEC. And arguably the state of Europe has relied as much on other organizations, including the European Court of Justice, the European Central Bank and NATO. (Lord Owen praised the role of NATO on the radio today, but acknowledged that NATO would be an unlikely future winner.)

The Nobel committee praises the EU and its forerunners. Of course that's not quite the same as giving the prize to Obama and praising him for his handling of the Cuban Missile crisis, but it should still remind us that organizational identity is often fluid and complex. Even if an organization does keep the same name, that doesn't mean it has remained the same for sixty years.

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