Obama's Nobel Speech: Reflection and Response

By Jim Wallis 12-14-2009

President Obama laid out a moral defense of the use of force in his acceptance speech in Oslo after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a more philosophical, and even theological, lecture than presidents normally give -- and therefore worthy of some reflection and response.

Obama spoke of the reality of evil and the limits of diplomacy, reason, and nonviolence in confronting threats like the Third Reich and al Qaeda. He affirmed the aspirations of nonviolence but suggested that as a head of state he cannot be guided by the examples of Dr. King and Gandhi alone. He spoke of military force as sometimes necessary to make or keep peace, and defended his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. The president spoke of the other critical tools of non-military pressure such as sanctions, the key commitment to human rights and democracy, and the effective development that brings prosperity as essential to preventing conflict and war; but he still affirmed the necessity of American arms and the role of the United States as the super-power that has done the most to keep the peace over the past six decades.

Many Republicans praised the speech, many military leaders felt affirmed in their role, and many advocates of a new approach to the "war on terrorism" were disappointed and saddened by the president's escalation of the war in Afghanistan, his affirmation of military "realism," and his continuation of many of the policies of the Bush administration. Barack Obama has called for a new era of engagement with the rest of the world, reached out in particular to the Muslim world, and affirmed the need for a new toolkit of responses to the problems of conflict; but his speech in Oslo seemed to affirm the old toolkit of the primacy of military solutions rather than opening the new toolkit and taking a fundamentally different approach.

Most would affirm the reality of evil, but did the president adequately address America's part in such evil over these past decades, or is evil again only done by others? Many would affirm the use of force in response to criminal behavior in tough neighborhoods in the U.S. or around the world, but did he adequately address the failures of war as a response to terrorism? Many would affirm the new toolkit of development, democracy, and diplomacy that the president embraced; but did Obama mostly use the occasion of the Nobel speech to affirm the old military toolkits? And finally, is nonviolence only an aspiration? Or is it a practical, realistic, and perhaps better approach to conflict resolution in a complicated world of tremendous complexity, inequality, despair, anger, and violence. Obama drew from both Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr.; so how well did he understand both, and what is the relation between the two?

With these and other questions in mind, I am inviting a number of wise people who have thought about these subjects to respond to the president's speech and spark a conversation among all of us.

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