When war is just – by Obama the peace prize winner

US President's Nobel speech forecasts more bloodshed to come in Afghanistan
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The Independent US

At once grave and humble, President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo yesterday and told his audience in the glittering City Hall an uncomfortable truth in such surroundings: the "imperfections of man and the limits of reason" mean that bloodshed must sometimes come before peace.

"I understand why war is not popular. But I also know this: the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it," he said. "Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice." He went on: "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."

The 35-minute speech came barely 10 days after Mr Obama announced he was sending 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. But he shrugged off the narrow concerns of domestic political pressures to offer a personal meditation on the concept of "just war".

The Nobel Committee gave this year's prize to Mr Obama because of the start he had made as the US President, not just by banning torture and pledging to close down Guantanamo, but also giving a new priority to bridging divides and reaching out to old enemies. Critics have labelled this approach naive and asked where the foreign policy fruits of it are.

The President's caravan of limousines, carrying him, the First Lady, Michelle, senior aides and close family friends, was greeted by cheering crowds but also a big banner that read: "Obama you Won it. Now Earn it."

But in Oslo, some of Mr Obama's foreign policy idealism gave ground to a more sober realism. He applauded the pacifism preached by some of the prize's previous winners – he cited both Martin Luther King and Gandhi – but added that pacifism is not always enough.

"A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qa'ida'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."

Mr Obama said that perceptions of the US as an unwelcome aggressor were rooted in "a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower". But history will be kinder, he said. "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."

He added: "But in a world in which threats are more diffuse and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. This is true in Afghanistan. This is true in failed states like Somalia, where terrorism and piracy is joined by famine and human suffering. And sadly, it will continue to be true in unstable regions for years to come."

Mr Obama also offered his own definition of real peace and how, once in place, it can be sustained.

"Peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear.... A just peace includes not only civil and political rights – it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want."

The "vital ingredients" to nurture it, he went on, are: "Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development.... And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, or the staying power, to complete this work without something more – and that is the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share."

He concluded: "Let us reach for the world that ought to be, that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls."

The speech: 'Let us reach for the spark of the divine...'

An edited extract from President Barack Obama's Nobel lecture yesterday:

I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labours on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants who have received this prize – Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela – my accomplishments are slight. And then there are those who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organisations to relieve suffering; the unrecognised millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women – some known, some obscure – to be far more deserving of this honour than I.

But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 43 other countries – including Norway – in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.

Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other...

America's commitment to global security will never waver. But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. I understand why war is not popular. But I also know this: the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That is why Nato continues to be indispensable. That is why we must strengthen UN and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries. That is why we honour those who return home from peacekeeping and training abroad to Oslo and Rome; to Ottawa and Sydney; to Dhaka and Kigali – we honour them not as makers of war, but as wagers of peace.

The one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes.

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. If we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naive, if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what is 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 nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him."

So let us reach for the world that ought to be – that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that – for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

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