President Obama’s Nobel address — while at times was simplistic and pedantic, and much too long — was significant and heartening. Set aside the fact that it was, in several respects, Bushian in tone and content (see Bill Kristol’s post here). What made this speech notable was that the president did not go before a foreign audience and undermine the moral achievements of America, as he has repeatedly done in the past. In fact, he praised the United States for the burden it has borne and the sacrifices it has made on behalf of peace, justice, and stability. Those sentiments wouldn’t be unusual for most presidents to have or express — yet for whatever reasons, Obama has had difficulty giving voice to them. The fact that he did so today, and that Obama’s words must burn in the ears of the Nobel Committee, is a good thing.
Also, Obama’s speech was in some respects morally sophisticated. The address was in part a meditation on the duties of a head of state in light of the non-violent teachings of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. “I cannot be guided by their examples alone,” the president said. “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” President Obama rightly did not dismiss the contributions of people like King or Gandhi; the “law of love” should not be ridiculed or cynically set aside. It is an admirable (and Biblical) ideal, a virtue to strive for, the “North Start that guides us on our journey.”
How individuals and nations travel that journey in an imperfect world, one inhabited by violent and malevolent men, is a question that has been debated and that people have struggled with throughout the ages. How can those who say they long for peace justify war? What makes war just? When can it be justified on humanitarian grounds?
President Obama’s Nobel address didn’t add to (or better articulate) what others have said about these matters. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s speech wasn’t impressive. It was, in terms of its ambition, in its willingness to address a morally complicated matter in a serious way, and in the judgments at which Obama finally arrived. He provided — for the first time, really — a strong moral justification for his decision to send troops to Afghanistan.
Barack Obama is our commander-in-chief. Of all his responsibilities, that is primus inter pares. And it is a responsibility he seems to have fully embraced. Obama was not speaking as a “citizen of the world” today; he was speaking as President of the United States. For Obama to have done so in that setting is, for him, an achievement.
Barack Obama did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. But having won it, he gave a much better speech than he has in the past, and better than many of us might have expected.