December 11, 2009

Obama's Nobel Prize Address: The Just War & The Four Freedoms

After the American Century Posting # 199

President Obama has given a major speech on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize. He began by admitting quite frankly that he was at the beginning of his international labor and rather a surprise winner of the prize. He then confronted what many see as a contradiction: that he is currently the commander in chief of the American armed forces which are engaged in two wars.

To his credit, he did not mention George Bush. It would have been fair enough to blame him for the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, at the least. Rather, Obama made the case for just war, when diplomacy fails, and provided a summary of his foreign policy, linking it to Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. In doing so, he specifically rejected the "realist" approach to foreign policy, which tends to be embraced by Republicans more than Democrats.

One aspect of this speech will be striking to most Europeans. Obama spoke several times of evil, a word that one might more expect to hear from George Bush. In Oslo, Obama declared: "Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. " and later said: "We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us." This is not far from the language of the Lord's Prayer. Such language is not unusual from an American politician. But "evil" is seldom heard in mainstream European politics, which are far less religious in tone.

Part of the explanation for this difference is structural. In Denmark, the Queen always ends her yearly speech on New Year's eve with the same words: "God protect Denmark." This is the ordinary language of a European monarch, but it is less common for the European politicians to ask for the Lord's protection. The American president, however, must play both roles.

However, Obama does not merely mention "evil" in passing, in a formulaic way. The core of his argument that war is necessary and unavoidable is rooted in the belief that some men are beyond the reach of reason or diplomacy. While he referred to Ghandi and King and clearly admires their idealism, ultimately Obama presented himself as hard-headed idealist. He is closing down the prisons at Guantanamo Bay. He promises to ophold the Geneve Conventions and to the honor Human Rights. But he also sees a world where wars and conflicts remain unavoidable.

He does not see the same world as George W. Bush, however. Obama sees the greatest hope for peace in international cooperation, in standing together against regimes that oppress their own people, that seek to acquire nuclear weapons, or that threaten other states. His foreign policy is one of enlightened self-interest that echoed President Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. In his speech, Obama argued that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want when achieved in any nation ultimately enhance the security of its neighbors and by extension the rest of humanity. He may not have mentioned Roosevelt by name, but by employing his language, Obama aligned himself with core values that guided American foreign policy before the Cold War, and made them appear equally useful today.