Obama’s Hawkish Nobel Lecture
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.