The Common Good

Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech and Just Peace Theory

If all we notice in President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Lecture is a justification of war, we will miss the 21st century import of his thinking and the hope of peace he called forth. President Obama spoke of just peace, the middle ground between just war thinking and pacifism. He articulated many of the basic ideas of just peacemaking.

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Within the broad categories of just peace theory -- truth, respect, security -- there are ten specific steps. They are as follows: support nonviolent direct action; take independent initiatives to reduce threats; use cooperative conflict resolution; acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness; advance democracy, human rights, and interdependence; foster just and sustainable economic development; work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system; strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights; reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade; encourage grassroots peacemaking groups (Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War, editor Glen Stassen).

While President Obama did speak about the components of just war theory, his prescriptions for peace were in concert with just peace theory. He said that meeting the challenge of ending war "will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace."

He called for more international unity and cooperation in providing effective nonviolent sanctions against nations that violate international law, especially against those seeking nuclear weapons. He said, "Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war." In matters of humanitarian atrocities -- genocide, rape, repression -- he called for an international effort. He said, "the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression." This is a radical shift from the idea of America acting alone or nearly alone in crises. It does not sanction war.

Further, he recognized the importance of human rights. He said, "Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting." He spoke of the importance of freedom of speech, worship, elections, and assembly. He called these rights universal. He spoke in favor of diplomacy, even with repressive regimes. He said, "I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach -- and condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."

The third of President Obama's imperatives for a just peace is economic security and opportunity. He said, "For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want." He showed an understanding that sustainable economic development provides for the basic needs of humanity within the context of care for the environment. Just peace includes the earth, the life upon it and within it, and the air that surrounds it.

Most importantly, President Obama dared to speak of love. He spoke of the Golden Rule, of the love that guided Gandhi, King, and others. He spoke of our common humanity and of the breath of God that breathes within us. He spoke of faith, justice, dignity, human progress, and hope. He spoke of just peace.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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