War and peace

Obama's Nobel acceptance speech is a triumph

Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, given this afternoon in Oslo's City Hall, wasn't quite an epic, but it needed to be at least one of his best. And, on eflection, it probably was. The speech may have been shorn of any soaring rhetoric, but given both the controversy surrounding the award and the reality that the award-holder is the commander-in-chief of a country now engaged in two overseas wars, this was never going to be the occasion for theatrics.

Instead, and quite rightly, what we got was eloquent and understated poetry: a thesis in two parts, and a reckoning of the problematic nature of peace today. It may not have won over all the sceptics, but it was certainly a bold defence of having been awarded the prize. And it appeared to "position" Obama -- certainly in foreign policy -- with a clarity that his somewhat ambivalent approach to peace to date has come to require.

Above all, however, the speech was a point and counterpoint of two Obamas: the pre-election Obama of The Audacity of Hope and the more worldly-wise Obama, nearly a year on into his presidency.

The first part of the speech -- and the president won a ripple of nervous laughter around the auditorium for addressing this so directly -- was a discourse not on peace, but on war. This was the more experienced Obama, making a bold, perhaps even risky, move, with the audience at this point looking distinctly expectant, some even with the stony glare of reproachful parents. It was the right move, however, because it allowed him to acknowledge that his contributions to peace were slight compared to the likes of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela (thereby defusing one of the main issues preoccupying his critics). Simultaneously, it suggested that it might, all the same, be appropriate for a leader at war to receive the prize (thereby tackling head-on the other major issue).

I'm not sure I quite bought his arguments why his receiving the award as a leader at war was appropriate. One would need to hold to the liberal interventionist model of a "just war" for that. Yet his account did offer an interesting historical perspective on the nature of wars and their justification, and perhaps even allowed a certain nuance into the subject of US intervention.

America's involvement in the world has come to be seen overwhelmingly in terms of war, he suggested, making it clear that he would rather the record be seen also in terms of building peace. He cited the example of Woodrow Wilson, who also won the peace prize for his role in establishing the League of Nations, to support his case (though he downplayed the irony, resonant still today, that US domestic politics doomed Wilson's efforts).

Reflecting on Wilson's statesmanship, Obama said: "We are the heirs of fortitude and foresight of generations past." Then he gave notice of where all this was heading when he pointed out that "this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats".

Thus did his speech, which had moved from war to peace, switch back to war. But this time it was a more general state of war, the violence that is not peace, to which Obama was drawing attention. And it was here he hoped to insert yet more nuance into America's *and, by extension, his own( involvement in world affairs.

He enumerated very carefully the problems of "non-peace" that a modern-day American president faces in seeking a Wilsonian rather than a Bushist world: the proliferation of nuclear weapons not by states, but by rogue actors; the growth of wars within states, and of failed states more generally; the problems of refugees amassed and undernourished, as in Darfur; and the prospect of children scarred. What these situations require, he said, is that we rethink the nature of war in terms of the imperatives of a "just peace". This was the Obama of The Audacity of Hope making an entrance: recovering the promise of his country's political traditions and matching them with the present in the hope of separating the good from the bad.

And with this began the second part of his speech: a rather clear statement of what sort of peace, and on what sort of terms, Obama will be seeking over the remaining years of his presidency. "The instruments of war do have a role to play in the preservation of peace," he said, in a clear reference to the Kennedy doctrine of "more practical, more attainable peace". This, of course, is a pragmatist's view of peace: "the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it".

But he was careful to soften this comment immediately with another that delineated, without mentioning by name, the legacy of his predecessor's foreign policy: "We lose ourselves when we compromise the ideals that we fight to defend," he said, receiving a warm round of applause from the audience in return. That during a Peace Prize speech a statement on the ethics of war might receive a spontaneous round of applause is indeed no small testament to Obama's oratorical skills.

And one might have thought it quite enough for the day. But the president seemed to have taken the Peace Prize Committee's framing of the award as a "call to action" quite seriously. Indeed, he went so far in the speech as to specify three fundamental steps towards building what he termed "a just and lasting peace".

I might be mistaken, but this all had the distinct feel of being Barack Obama's personal vision for a new liberal world order. First, in dealing with nations that break laws, he argued that the global community must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behaviours (in short, "And beware, Iran, that sanctions must exact a real price"). Second, he argued that only a just peace can truly be lasting, that no one's interests are served by the denial of universal aspirations to human rights. It may have sounded like a call to global harmony, but it, too, was equally a warning to those countries that fail to respect the rights of citizens within their own borders. And third, he argued that a just peace includes not only civil and political rights, but economic security and opportunity, and that freedom from want is as important as freedom from fear.

Obama's final point here seemed to be that such things represent the common aspiration of all peoples. He is doubtless right. Clean water is clean water, wherever you find it. And he seemed to want to argue that protecting such rights and freedoms will at times require the use of force. But in reality, the things that support such rights and freedoms -- agreements between nations, support for human rights and investments in development, to mention just some of those he himself cited -- are anything but easily achievable. And overcoming the political and financial hurdles to achieving them is made all the harder by the continued exercise of war.

Without ever quite addressing this fundamental contradiction with anything other than his admittedly eloquent conviction that waging peace is a necessary and just goal, Obama ended his speech on a note of moving rhetoric which ultimately left one with the distinct impression that his original platform of hope remains an unbeatable one. And yes, perhaps, indeed, it is the necessary starting point that just about anybody can get behind.

"We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice," he said. "We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that, for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on earth."

So, the verdict? Obama's speech needed to be good to smooth over the criticisms about him having been awarded the prize and to prevent it becoming a weight around his neck in matters of foreign policy. Remarkably, it managed to be both these things while achieving a tone of reverence for the ideals of peace and justice that was almost pitch perfect.

But, in making the 2009 award less about himself than about the rightness of American intervention to secure a particular vision of peace with goods and arms, his speech also,unintentionally, serves as a reminder of the dangers that still lie ahead when one -- a US president, no less -- is committed to expanding the liberal zone of peace and prepared to entertain the arts of war in doing so.


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“You’re a big corporate man” The Apprentice 2015 blog: series 11, episode 8

The candidates upset some children.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read up on episode 7 here.

“I don’t have children and I don’t like them,” warns Selina.

An apt starting pistol for the candidates – usually so shielded from the spontaneity, joy and hope of youth by their childproof polyester uniforms – to organise children’s parties. Apparently that’s a thing now. Getting strangers in suits to organise your child’s birthday party. Outsourcing love. G4S Laser Quest. Abellio go-carting. Serco wendy houses.

Gary the supermarket stooge is project manager of team Versatile again, and Selina the child hater takes charge of team Connexus. They are each made to speak to an unhappy-looking child about the compromised fun they will be able to supply for an extortionate fee on their special days.

“So are you into like hair products and make-up?” Selina spouts at her client, who isn’t.

“Yeah, fantastic,” is Gary’s rather enthusiastic response to the mother of his client’s warning that she has a severe nut allergy.

Little Jamal is taken with his friends on an outdoor activity day by Gary’s team. This consists of wearing harnesses, standing in a line, and listening to a perpetual health and safety drill from fun young David. “Slow down, please, don’t move anywhere,” he cries, like a sad elf attempting to direct a fire drill. “Some people do call me Gary the Giraffe,” adds Gary, in a gloomy tone of voice that suggests the next half of his sentence will be, “because my tongue is black with decay”.

Selina’s team has more trouble organising Nicole’s party because they forgot to ask for her contact details. “Were we supposed to get her number or something?” asks Selina.

“Do you have the Yellow Pages?” replies Vana. Which is The Apprentice answer for everything. Smartphones are only to be used to put on loudspeaker and shout down in a frenzy.

Eventually, they get in touch, and take Nicole and pals to a sports centre in east London. I know! Sporty! And female! Bloody hell, someone organise a quaint afternoon tea for her and shower her with glitter to make her normal. Quick! Selina actually does this, cutting to a clip of Vana and Richard resentfully erecting macaroons. Selina also insists on glitter to decorate party bags full of the most gendered, pointless tat seed capital can buy.

“You’re breaking my heart,” whines Richard the Austerity Chancellor when he’s told each party bag will cost £10. “What are we putting in there – diamond rings?” Just a warning to all you ladies out there – if Richard proposes, don’t say yes.

They bundle Nicole and friends into a pink bus, for the section of her party themed around the Labour party’s failed general election campaign, and Brett valiantly screeches Hit Me Baby One More Time down the microphone to keep them entertained.

Meanwhile on the other team, Gary is quietly demonstrating glowsticks to some bored 11-year-old boys. “David, we need to get the atmosphere going,” he warns. “Ermmmmm,” says David, before misquoting the Hokey Cokey out of sheer stress.

Charleine is organising a birthday cake for Jamal. “May contain nuts,” she smiles, proudly. “Well done, Charleine, good job,” says Joseph. Not even sarcastically.

Jamal’s mother is isolated from the party and sits on a faraway bench, observing her beloved son’s birthday celebrations from a safe distance, while the team attempts to work out if there are nuts in the birthday cake.

Richard has his own culinary woes at Nicole’s party, managing both to burn and undercook burgers for the stingy barbecue he’s insisted on overriding the afternoon tea. Vana runs around helping him and picking up the pieces like a junior chef with an incompetent Gordon Ramsay. “Vana is his slave,” comments Claude, who clearly remains unsure of how to insult the candidates and must draw on his dangerously rose-tinted view of the history of oppression.

Versatile – the team that laid on some glowstick banter and a melted inky mess of iron-on photo transfers on t-shirts for Jamal and his bored friends – unsurprisingly loses. This leads to some vintage Apprentice-isms in The Bridge café, His Lordship's official caterer to losing candidates. “I don’t want to dance around a bush,” says one. “A lot of people are going to point the finger at myself,” says another’s self.

In an UNPRECEDENTED move, Lord Sugar decides to keep all four losing team members in the boardroom. He runs through how rubbish they all are. “Joseph, I do believe there has been some responsibility for you on this task.” And “David, I do believe that today you’ve got a lot to answer to.”

Lord Sugar, I do believe you’re dancing around a bush here. Who’s for the chop? It’s wee David, of course, the only nice one left.

But this doesn’t stop Sugar voicing his concern about the project manager. “I’m worried about you, Gary,” he says. “You’re a big corporate man.” Because if there’s any demographic in society for whom we should be worried, it’s them.

Candidates to watch:


Hanging on in there by his whiskers.


Far less verbose when he’s doing enforced karaoke.


She’ll ruin your party.

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here for the previous episode blog. The Apprentice airs weekly at 9pm, Wednesday night on BBC One.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.