- December 13, 2009
Nobel: Obama’s Speech and Reaction
President Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize yesterday in Oslo, Norway. In his acceptance speech (full text), Obama affirmed that the award “speaks to our highest aspirations – that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.” Throughout the speech, Obama balanced the tension between the aspiration for peace and the necessity of war.
President Obama reminded the audience that America’s historical leadership in “constructing an architecture to keep the peace” that has advanced “the ideals of liberty, self-determination, equality and the rule of law.” Through the sacrifice and service of its citizens, the United States has promoted peace, prosperity and democracy “not because we seek to impose our will” but 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 other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.”
Elaborating further, President Obama explained that peace is not simply a lack of conflict, but rather it must “based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual.” Therefore, President Obama promised that “even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice of those aspirations that are universal.” Because that voice sometimes must be delivered directly to authoritarian regimes, Obama rejected “sanctions without outreach, and condemnation without discussion [that] can carry forward a crippling status quo.” As such, the world “must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement; pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.”
While the reaction to the speech has been largely positive, a few have reacted harshly to Obama’s Peace Prize. Ari Shavit in Haaretz dismisses the ceremony, arguing President Obama was honored only because “he is a Democrat, a liberal and a black man.” Former Ambassador Bolton also joins in, calling the speech “pedestrian, turgid, and uninspired.” Philip J. Cunningham claims Obama ”just proved himself to be the world’s biggest phony.”
Nonetheless, Kristen Soltis counts herself as one of many conservatives who responded with “pleasant surprise” to the Nobel speech, as does Max Boot who called the speech a “masterpiece.” Citing Vaclav Havel’s warning against small compromises in human rights that accumulate over time, Jennefir Rubin complains “Obama waxed lyrical about human rights. But in practice he has consistently shoved human rights off his agenda.” Nonetheless, David Rivkin Jr. and Lee Casey argue Obama failed to “make the case for America’s struggle to defend democracy, pluralism, and law against simple barbarism.” Bob McEwen and Rick Tyler at the NRO blame Obama for “moral neutrality [that] is never good foreign policy.” But at the same time, Rubin admits Obama gave “his most robust defense yet of America’s role in the world and of his responsibilities as a wartime commander in chief.” In fact, Abe Greenwald asks whether President Obama has finally “been mugged by reality” and become a neoconservative.
John Dickerson would answer Greenwald’s question no, contending Obama showed an “idealistic tough-mindedness” that escapes simple classification. Jonathan Chait calls the speech “a careful middle ground between the bloodlessness of realism and the unrealistic hope that American can stop evil everywhere.” Ross Douthat still contends Obama should never have received the Nobel, but nonetheless admits the speech was a clear defense “of using realist means in the service of liberal internationalist ends.” William Galston praises “the best speech of Obama’s presidency” and the “moral realism” Obama outlined. Richard Haass explains, “he argued not just for peace but for justice as well […] This may have been a Nobel peace Prize speech, but the U.S. president is no pacifist.” Eugene Robinson observes that it was not a typical Nobel lecture because Obama “drew a clear distinction between the world as we would like it to be and the world as it is.”
Steve Benen concludes, “Obama’s vision for the future isn’t easy or clean, but he’s committed to hanging on that arc, doing his best to bend it towards justice.” Michael Crowley focuses upon that vision of “the possibility of transformative change and the highest potential of the human spirit.” Similarly, C.M. Sennott contends Obama provided the “clarity to cut through the fog and the shadows of complex challenges, and to stay on course by allowing ourselves to be guided by our highest ideals.” To stay the course, The New York Times editorial staff call on President Obama to keep his promise to uphold “the very ideals that we fight to defend.”
Michael Allen at Democracy Digest highlights the “eloquent articulation of the democratic peace theory” and the “nuanced and historically-referenced defense of the administration’s policy of engagement with repressive regimes.” As such, Allen calls the speech “the most confident and forthright articulation of democratic principles and values” by President Obama. Laura Rozen notes an interesting last-minute change in the speech that strengthens Obama’s support for freedom movements around the world. Rhetorical shifts aside, The Financial Times editorial staff write that “for his ringing Oslo speech to translate into peacemongering – rather than a retreat into a shallow realism he rejected – things really do need to start happening.”
The editorial staff at The Christian Science Monitor observe “Obama seems eager to warn the world of religious extremists who resort to violence in the name of God and show no restraint. But he also provides an antidote: the law of love and a faith in human progress.” CSM also offers a look into Arab frustration over perceived contradictions in Obama’s Nobel Prize, a perspective also picked up by Scott MacLeod who contends that many Arabs consider the prize a “cruel hoax.