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10 December 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 5:42am

War and peace

Obama's Nobel acceptance speech is a triumph

By Simon Reid-Henry

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).

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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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