Obama’s Hawkish Nobel Lecture

by Roger Alford

Obama’s Nobel Lecture is a great speech. He spoke strongly in favor of international institutions and even more so international law.

The great surprise of the speech is its unstinting support for just war theory. There is no doubt that Obama’s Nobel Lecture is the most hawkish one in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. Only Yitzhak Rabin’s 1994 Nobel Lecture comes close. The early laureates were routinely pacifists. Most laureates are not statesmen and enjoy the luxury of ideals divorced from the necessity of hard choice. The laureates who were statesmen often failed in their Nobel lectures to defend war in appropriate circumstances. To be sure, the Nobel Committee has recognized the legitimacy of force in the past, with the prizes to Lester Pearson in 1957 and U.N. Peacekeeping Forces in 1988 the most obvious examples. But as it turns out, they may have gotten more than they bargained for with Obama’s eloquent defense of just war theory:

Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers, clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence….

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that 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 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’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive 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 nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaidas leaders to lay down their arms. 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.

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

Yet 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. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. 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 other people’s children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.

I find little to quibble with in Obama’s speech. He defends international law and international institutions, but is equally eloquent in articulating the importance of states—especially the United States—in the international order. He even “reserved the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.” He went so far as to suggest humanitarian intervention might be legitimate: “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”

Many feared that the Nobel Committee was trying to box Obama into a corner that would limit his options to take forceful action in the face of evil. Obama effectively rebutted those fears with his speech today.


9 Responses

  1. Response…@Roger:  Would you be willing to provide additional comment when you say, “Most laureates are not statesmen and enjoy the luxury of ideals divorced from the necessity of hard choice.” 

    Thank you for this interesting, timely post, and for expanding upon your comment.


  2. I am not an instinctive fan of Obama’s but given the very low standard of nobel peace prize winners, he may be a deserving winner for this speech alone.

  3. Leslie,

    I should clarify that I did not mean to say that Nobel Laureates do not often make hard choices.  Political dissidents such as Aung San Su Kyi, Andrei Sakharov, and Carl von Ossietzky risked their very lives for their ideals.  I just mean that the statesmen laureates must balance their ideals with hard political choices that risks the safety and lives of their constituents.

    Roger Alford

  4. Response…  Thanks, Roger.  Clearly, the ultimate price many peacemakers have paid for constituencies, however large or small, without resorting to the use of force, would suggest a lack of luxury or idealism.  The work and legacies of notable peacemakers, such as Pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. in America or Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, speak for themselves as to the cost and unflinching realism bound up in such choices and decisions, not to mention the ethics such courage has inspired among untold constituencies.

    Thanks, again, for the illuminating post and quick response. 


  5. For those interested in the entire thing, here’s part one of his speech (the rest you should also be able to track down):

    “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”

    Inspiring stuff

  6. Roger,

    I wonder why you say with a cautious voice that Obama “even reserved the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend [his] nation.” I don’t think this is the same kind of unilateralism we’ve seen with the Bush administration or his preemptive strikes doctrine. It seems to me that Obama is here merely reiterating the right to self-defence, clearly the most widely recognized form of legitimate use of force in international law. He also at the same time makes it clear that in employing force, “all nations — strong and weak alike — must adhere to standards that govern the use of force”. He goes on to emphasize that  “America — in fact, no nation — can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.  For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified. / And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor.”

    His embrace of defensive use of force thus doesn’t strike me as either novel or worrying per se, although Obama didn’t go on to offer his interpretation of self-defence – nonetheless, I don’t think he understands it as broadly as the Bush administration did (but we will probably get a clearer picture with the Quadrennial Defense Review and the new national security strategy next year).

    With respect to his take on humanitarian military intervention, I think it also remains unclear whether he indeed embraces the option of a unilateral HI, or whether he only sees it as a legitimate option when there’s a collective decision in the Security Council (he does allude to “a clear mandate”, perhaps that’s an indication?). Since the difference in modality (unilateral/collective) is significant from a legal point of view, I would be careful in assigning to Obama’s words the meaning he may not have intended them to have (or at least I should hope so)…

    I would be happy to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thanks for a clear and motivating post!

  7. In my opinion, Obama was as eloquent as he always is, and said things which are indeed hard to quibble with. In fact, his speech may be renamed the ‘Peace and Security’ equivalent of the Washington Consensus. But, I mean, seriously, peace? …Rather than the Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, it looked like the Nobel Peacekeeping Prize Lecture.

  8. Dominica, while I believe you are correct in that Obama only did specifically support unilateral action in the face of self-defense, clearly a well-established norm, it is still troubling to me to see such a strong endorsement of the use of force given not only the huge economic interest in war shown during the Bush era, but also the vast wiggle room given to the term “self-defense.” I worry that acts merely against the US’s interests, rather than its fundamental rights, could be slipped under too large an umbrella. I have the same concern for the humanitarian intervention aspect, as it is not clear as to who he thinks defines when it must happen and when it is merely permissible, or when it should not actually be allowed. Perhaps a “clear mandate” from the Security Counsil would be enough; I suppose that simply remains to be seen. I admit I don’t have any specific examples to point to right now.

    That being said, it is certainly heartening, at least, to see such an endorsement of adherence to the norms and means of international law. I can only hope Obama is as good as his word in encouraging my nation to give deference to global initiatives and goals, rather than riding off half-cocked as the cowboy of the international stage.

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  1. […] has been widely discussed, and Roger Alford at Opinio Juris notes, President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech drew extensively upon just war ethics.  I will try to come […]