President Obama's Nobel Prize Lecture
I have finally watched a video of President Obama's Nobel Prize Lecture, about one week after it was given, and I've also read the transcript.
Without reservation, I find myself in full agreement with one of the President's opening remarks, that "compared to some of the giants of history who've received this prize . . . [his] accomplishments are slight." Like President Obama himself, I believe that he hadn't deserved this honor . . . even if the Peace Prize has been derogated in recent years by some of its recipients and therefore confers less honor than it once did.
That said, I think the President made an excellent speech, one that, in the words of Ted Widmer, "was a most serious public utterance, delivered with appropriate solemnity, on the weightiest matter a head of state can reflect upon" ("Obama's Nobel Speech: Sophisticated and Brave," New York Times, December 11, 2009). That matter was war, about which Obama presented some hard truths, as Widmer notes:
It threw down gauntlets left and right, challenging lazy assumptions of his liberal base (that war is avoidable) and his conservative opposition (that war is glorious). It gently chided his European audience, reminding them that the remarkable achievement of 64 years of relative peace has been possible because America "helped underwrite" it. (Widmer, "Obama's Nobel Speech")I'm not sure that so many conservatives argue that war is glorious, but I suppose that some do. Nor do all liberals assume that war is always avoidable. Still, Widmer accurately draws out several important points, so go and read his entire op-ed article if you want a quick, analytical summary of what the President said.
Whether addressing the left or the right, President Obama simply had to present a lecture explaining how war can be pursued in the cause of peace, for he was offering his remarks in response to having been awarded a prize for peace. He chose to cast his case for war explicitly in terms of just-war theory, as we see from the lecture itself:
War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease -- the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.This is a good summary of just-war theory and needed to be stated as a reminder to both left and right. Indeed, I thought that the following passages were what the left especially needed to hear:
And over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and 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 certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence. (President Obama, "Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize," The White House, December 10, 2009)
I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.All of this is well expressed, and has to be, for President Obama is speaking primarily to his liberal-left base . . . and perhaps to an earlier version of himself, using an argument that he's lived out in his own development. I don't know if it will convince those erstwhile supporters of his, but it at least gives them something to reflect upon, pointing them in the direction of a respectable intellectual tradition on the ethical imperative for those wars whose cause is just.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: 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 Jr. 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 work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- 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 non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. (President Obama, "Remarks by the President")
The lecture has a lot more to say than what I've quoted or summarized, but much of it concerns the moral appropriateness of force in an imperfect world that we strive to make a better place.
I'd urge those who haven't watched the speech yet to set aside 37 minutes and watch the President's lecture. Open up two browsers so that you can read the transcript as you follow the lecture -- if that helps you concentrate (as it helps me).
I certainly don't agree with President Obama on every issue, and I do worry a lot about the costs of our current economic policies, as well as the projected costs of the proposed health-care system, but on the issues broached in the President's Nobel Lecture, I largely agree.
We'll now see how things turn out in this imperfect world.