Accepting the 109th Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway before an expectant world public, President Barack Obama delivered a thoughtful and nuanced speech about the reasons for war and the limits of peace. The Nobel Committee awarded the honor, previously granted to leaders of populist, nonviolent movements such as Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, to Obama just nine months into his tenure as US president. As such—and in the midst of American prosecution of two foreign wars—the speech was fraught with controversy. Ever self-aware, Obama acknowledged his "more deserving" predecessors, and sought to explain away the gap between the "hope" of peace the Nobel Committee cited in its award announcement and his own actions, most notably his decision to send 30,000 additional American troops to Afghanistan:
[W]e are at war, and I'm responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict — filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.
Obama deserves credit for not backing away from the elephant in the room—and gave a credible lesson in the history of war and the American role in the tumultuous 20th century world order, before insisting that wars—"just" or otherwise—are today inevitable.
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.
Obama also engaged two very interesting philosophical points—about intra-state conflict and about the capacity of world citizens, including Americans, to tolerate the concept of war. He noted that "The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states — all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos." This is a very important point. We may not call insurgencies and violent political clashes—what happened in Zimbabwe in 2008, or in Iran in 2009, for example—"war", but the loss of life and security suggest that we cannot call it peace. Responding to new types of conflict will be central to the 21st century world order. Obama maintained this broader definition of war when citing the need for food and climate security later in the speech.
Obama's second important acknowledgement was about the politics of war. As 9/11 recedes, the vaguesness of terrorism, the lack of direct sacrifice for the majority of Americans, and the remoteness of the foreign theaters where we prosecute war has led to a resurgence in anti-war sentiment under the president who promised change. Battling to defend his decision to escalate in Afghanistan to a weary crowd at home, Obama also took the opportunity to defend America to a skeptical world public:
…In many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower….But 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 others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
Overall, the speech successfully blended historical context, powerful imagery, and a hard-headed defense of force in a chaotic world. But don't let the Nobel citation fool you: This speech was as much about war as the president's December 1 announcement on Afghanistan. He pointedly separated the work of activists from his job as a "head of state." Nevertheless, Obama leaned heavily on King in the closing moments of his speech, a call to action and to "an expansion of our moral imagination":
The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.
For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what's best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.
Like generations have before us, we must reject that future. As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago, "I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present condition makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him."
Watch the speech here:
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.