How Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize while escalating the war in Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
Dec. 10 2009 2:56 PM

Obama's War and Peace

How the president accepted the Nobel while sending more troops to fight in Afghanistan.

Also in Slate: John Dickerson examines the challenges Obama navigated in spelling out a doctrine that seeks peace but acknowledges the necessity of war. Christopher Beam analyzes Obama's use of "false choices" as a rhetorical device.

When President Barack Obama sat down with his speechwriters to outline his Nobel lecture, he must have known that his core task would be to reconcile what many of his hosts in Oslo probably regard as irreconcilable—accepting the peace prize while seriously escalating a war in Afghanistan.

There was an easy, or at least obvious, way out of this. He could have cited the time-honored principles of a "just war"—self-defense, proportional use of force, and so forth—and then moved on to the standard bromides about our nobler natures, the oneness of mankind, etc., etc.

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President Barack Obama at the Nobel Prize ceremony

But Obama took a harder, subtler path, using the occasion to outline nothing less than a vision of moral realism for the conduct of war and peace in the modern era—as clear and complex a statement on the subject as any American president has delivered in nearly a half-century.

Critics may dismiss the speech as a hodgepodge—a steely invocation of Realpolitik here, a rousing chorus of democracy promotion there—but they would be mistaken.

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Yes, Obama's speech is filled with ambiguities, dilemmas, and contradictions. More to the point, it explicitly grapples with them. If there is a single theme to the speech, it's that a philosopher-statesman of our time (which is what Obama is trying to be) must recognize and grapple with both universal principles and contingent realities, with our ambitions and our limits, with—as Martin Luther King Jr. put it in his Nobel lecture (and which Obama quoted today)—the "is-ness of man's present nature" and the "ought-ness that forever confronts him."

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. In his influential 1952 book The Irony of American History, he wrote that American idealism must come to terms "with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historical configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue."

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."

Brooks observed in his New York Times column, "[F]or a guy who's spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that's a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr's The Irony of American History."

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

"As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work," Obama said, "I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. … But, as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation … I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. … To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism. It is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason."

He made no apologies for this fact. To the clear discomfort of some in his audience, he pointed out that the global security of the post-World War II era was achieved not just by "treaties and declarations" but by the United States of America—"the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms." He added, "So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." (Has anyone ever spoken like this while accepting a Nobel Peace Prize?)

But then he broadened and deepened the picture. "The soldier's courage and sacrifice," he said, "is full of glory … but war itself is never glorious." The challenge, he went on, "is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths—that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human folly."

The answer, he said, quoting President John F. Kennedy, is to "focus on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution of human institutions."

Most important, he said, all nations must "adhere to standards that govern the use of force." This is for practical as well as moral reasons. First, "America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves." Second, the failure to follow these stands can make our action "appear arbitrary" and "undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified."

He declared, "I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds." But, he added, as if to draw a distinction from George W. Bush's crusader rhetoric, "In a world in which threats are more diffuse and missions more complex, America cannot act alone." In fact, "all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace. … Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice."

War, he allowed, must be avoided whenever possible. But in some cases, he said, "alternatives to violence" must be "tough enough to change behavior, for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something." Those who break rules "must be held accountable." Sanctions "must exact a real price," and these pressures work "only when the world stands together as one." (Global unity not just to sing "Kumbaya" but to exert economic leverage on Iran and North Korea! Again, extraordinary words before this audience.)

The final section of his speech was the most complex and discomfiting. He said the world must also stand united against "those who violate international law by brutalizing their own people," because a truly just, stable, and lasting peace must be "based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual."

However, he then said, "The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. … I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation," but "sanctions without outreach—and condemnation without discussion—can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."

To some, he said, Richard Nixon's summit with Mao Zedong, with the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution's horrors, "appeared inexcusable"—yet it "helped set China on a path" of lifting millions out of poverty and connecting with open societies. Pope John Paul II's engagement with Poland "created space" not just for the Church but also for Solidarity. Ronald Reagan's embrace of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika "not only improved relations with the Soviet Union but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe."

The key, he said, is to "balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time."

This recitation raises many more questions than it answers. How does the United States, the United Nations, the West, or anyone pull off this balancing act? When is the right time for sanctions, the right time for summitry? (Nixon went to China entirely for power-balancing reasons; enriching or opening up the Middle Kingdom must have been the last thing on his mind.) And what is Obama hinting at for his own policy toward, say, Iran or North Korea: Does the speech presage the ratcheting of sanctions, the opening to a grand bargain, or—in some still trickier balancing act—both? And what happens if, unlike Moscow under Gorbachev or Poland in the time of Lech Walesa, today's evil regimes are uninterested in openness and impervious to pressure?

"There is no simple formula here," Obama summarized. And that's the point. His speech, like Niebuhr's writing, reflects an active awareness of humanity's ideals but also its imperfections—of our reach and our limits.

It's unclear how Obama, as president, will deal with the tensions and contradictions. But it's good to know that he knows they exist.

AP Video: Obama Accepts Nobel Peace Prize