For his very good speech accepting the Nobel Prize. Our President affirmed the principle of “just war,” and the righteousness of sometimes using unilateral force against tyranny, for “There will be times when nations–acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” In words reminiscent of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, President Obama continued:
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.
I raise this point, I begin with this point because 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.
peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.It was this insight that drove drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War. In the wake of devastation, they recognized that if human rights are not protected, peace is a hollow promise.
America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests — nor the world’s — are served by the denial of human aspirations.
So even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal. We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran. It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear that these movements — these movements of hope and history — they have us on their side.
It is true that Obama administration has not always fully lived by these noble words. But at least today, the words themselves are what matters. The President’s Nobel Prize Speech was no apology tour, no bow to a foreign monarch. Like his speech at West Point, the Nobel speech was a strong continuation of the bipartisan Kennedy-Reagan foreign policy based on military strength, support for human rights, readiness to negotiate, and realistic idealism. Today, our President made me especially proud to be an American.
p.s. Contrary to what one of Hugh Hewitt’s co-bloggers wrote, the final section of the speech is not “where Obama re-coins the golden rule as ‘the law of love.'” For those who don’t recognize the phrase, here’s the background, from my article on modern pacifism in the Charleston Law Review:
In 1932, [the eminent Protestant theologian Richard] Niebuhr wrote that he could think of no good methods, short of war, to end Japanese aggression in China. But since he was a pacifist, force was out of the question. So he advocated “the grace of doing nothing.” That is, just sitting on the sidelines while Japan raped, literally and figuratively, the Chinese people and hoping that God would solve things in the long run.
In a famous exchange of letters with his brother Richard, Reinhold Niebuhr [also an eminent Protestant theologian] argued that the deeper principle of the pacifist Gospels was “the law of love.” He argued that the law of love required Christians to protect the victims of fascist aggression. His views were elaborated in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. After World War II, Reinhold Niebuhr became one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, an organization of liberal Democrats such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Hubert Humphrey, and John Kenneth Galbraith—who supported President Truman’s leftist economic policies and staunch resistance to Stalin.
In short, Obama’s use of Niebuhr’s phrase “the law of love” fits perfectly with the central question that Obama addressed in his speech. Indeed, the “law of love” line comes along with a very Niebuhrian explication. The speech not only invoked President Kennedy twice, it was a speech that President Kennedy himself might have given (with, of course, some changes in details) if Kennedy had lived long enough to receive the Nobel Prize. Certainly there is a great deal in the Obama speech that matches what Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush believed and practiced. However, the amount of attention that the speech gave to development aid as a tool for peace is not a Reagan theme, although it was a theme for both Kennedy and Bush. The speech’s exaltation of multilateral institutions like the U.N. was also a Kennedy theme, not a Reagan or Bush theme. So while the speech is definitely within the bipartisan Kennedy-Reagan mainstream, the speech is closer to a Kennedy speech than anything else. Accordingly, it was especially appropriate for our young President–who like Kennedy inspires many people around the globe–to use the words of Niebuhr that so profoundly influenced the great anti-communist liberal Democrats of the Age of Kennedy.
p.p.s. Much more on Niebuhr here, in chapter 3 of my Brown Univ. thesis on Arthur Schlesinger.