Wednesday, December 16, 2009

President Obama's Nobel Prize Lecture

President Obama
(Image from The White House)

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.

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)
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:
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.

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")
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.

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.

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At 7:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

President Obama had pretty much committed himself to the war in Afghanistan during his presidential campaign, distancing himself from the conflict in Iraq and declaring that Afghanistan was the right war.
He delayed approving the troop buildup recommended by his general of choice, finally giving 3/4 of the request, but setting a time for the beginning of withdrawal.
Time will tell how he conducts his war policy.
He did give a good speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony, receiving commendations from several conservative spokesmen.
I didn't vote for him, likely would not next time, but I follow the scriptural admonitions to honor and pray for those in authority over us.


At 8:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Obama did delay approval of the troop build-up, but he seems to have needed to thrash out all of the relevant issues to ensure that he could defend his decision to his liberal base. Without that process of debate, I don't think that the President would have been as serene in his Nobel lecture.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:25 AM, Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

Brings to mind this quote of Winston Churchill's:

The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states. Their duty is first so to deal with other nations as to avoid strife and war and to eschew aggression in all its forms, whether for nationalistic or ideological objects. But the safety of the State, the lives and freedom of their own fellow countrymen, to whom they owe their position, make it right and imperative in the last resort, or when a final and definite conviction has been reached, that the use of force should not be excluded.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

And this from Solzhenitsyn:

At no time has the world been without war. Not in seven or ten or twenty thousand years. Neither the wisest of leaders, nor the noblest of kings, nor yet the Church--none of them has been able to stop it. And don't succumb to the facile belief that wars will be stopped by hotheaded socialists. Or that rational and just wars can be sorted out from the rest. There will always be thousands of thousands to whom even such a war will be senseless and unjustified. Quite simply, no state can live without war, that is one of the state's essential functions. ... War is the price we pay for living in a state. Before you can abolish war you will have to abolish all states. But that is unthinkable until the propensity to violence and evil is rooted out of human beings. The state was created to protect us from evil. ...

In ordinary life thousands of bad impulses, from a thousand foci of evil, move chaotically, randomly, against the vulnerable. The state is called upon to check these impulses--but it generates others of its own, still more powerful, and this time one-directional. At times it throws them all in a single direction--and that is war.
--"Father Severyan", in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's November 1916

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, TSI, for the relevant quotes.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:23 PM, Anonymous limo hire said...

I never missed President Obama's speech ..because of i am the huge fan of Barak Obama.

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, then, keep a limo ready for him with the engine running . . . or better not, given the threat of global warming.

Jeffery Hodges

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