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Politics

President Obama’s Nobel prize acceptance speech is receiving ample praise back home in the states. But first, one of the key portions of the speech is this (slightly edited down) six-graph stretch:

I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war..[I]t will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.


But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms….We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

That is some pretty powerful prose. The ever-more-readable Kathleen Parker opened her Washington Post column today (just inches away from always-whiny Charles Krauthammer) with these lines:

After Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, anyone still questioning whether he is really a Christian, rather than a Muslim aligned with fanaticism, needs to seek therapy forthwith.

Anyone still unconvinced that Obama is really an American committed to his nation’s values, rather than an impostor who doesn’t pledge allegiance to his critics’ satisfaction, should probably surrender to the asylum.

Obama’s speech, an artful balance of realism and idealism, was both a Judeo-Christian epistle, conceding the moral necessity of war, and a meditation on American exceptionalism. He was, in other words, the unapologetic president of the United States and not some errant global villager seeking affirmation.

The speech was a signal moment in the evolution and maturation of Obama from ambivalent aspirant to reluctant leader.

Slate’s Kaplan was also impressed, and situated the speech in the broader context of Reinhold Neibuhr’s political philosophies:

Rising to the occasion, he managed to redeem himself at a low point in his popularity by reminding Americans of what is best about themselves.

Read in its entirety, Obama’s speech seems a faithful reflection of another theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who, during World War II and the Cold War that followed, sought to reconcile the principles of Christianity with the imperatives of national defense…

Obama’s speech doesn’t mention Niebuhr, but back in April 2007, early on in the presidential campaign, David Brooks asked Obama whether he’d ever read Niebuhr. The candidate replied, “I love him, he’s one of my favorite philosophers.” Asked what he took away from Niebuhr, Obama answered, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world”; that “we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things, but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction”; that “we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.”

The Nobel lecture that Obama delivered today is a fuller elaboration of the same ideas.

Hanging like a shadow over the speech, of course, is Obama’s recent decision to send an addition 34,000 troops to Afghanistan. Cynics would say Obama’s Oslo address was little more than justification for the ironic juxtaposition of that decision with his choice for the award itself.

Obama is aware of the tension. In his toasting remarks later in the day, Obama echoed the familiar refrain about the irony that the award’s namesake was an inventor of dynamite and yet promoter of peace. And he also said this:

…I would like to thank the committee once again for the extraordinary confidence that they placed in me and this great honor that I have received tonight. As I indicated before, no one was more surprised than me. (Laughter.) And I have to say that when the chairman spoke introducing me, I told him afterwards that I thought it was an excellent speech and that I was almost convinced that I deserved it. (Laughter and applause.)

Obama knows that he won the award prospectively–for the promise of what he will do, not what he has done thus far. Earning it over the long term is going to be tougher than accepting it, that’s for sure. And the process of delivering on that promise begins in Afghanistan.

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