In the Arena

A Noble Lecture

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How does a rookie President, having been granted the Nobel Peace Prize, go about earning it? Well, he can start by giving the sort of Nobel lecture that Barack Obama just did, an intellectually rigorous and morally lucid speech that balanced the rationale for going to war against the need to build a more peaceful and equitable world. The first half of the speech, in which the President made the case for Just Wars, will be the part that makes news. It was especially notable because it was delivered to an elite European audience, denizens of a continent where the most vicious warfare conducted in the history of humankind has been replaced by a facile moral superiority (made possible by the U.S. force of arms during the Cold War). But Obama’s clarity would also have been useful last week when he gave a more grudging, less straightforward, speech at West Point, announcing his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Here are the crucial paragraphs, which bear close reading:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth:  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.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago:  “Violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem:  it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”  As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence.  I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake:  Evil does exist in the world.  A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’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.

I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause.  And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.

There is something remarkably gutsy about using Martin Luther King Jr. as a foil before the Nobel Committee, which elevated King, and his movement, into an international moral crusade. But Obama brought it off. The audience didn’t applaud until the end, when it exploded; it was one of those audiences that was concentrating too hard on the words to interrupt the speaker.

The second half of the speech, about peace-making, was well-written and delivered, but it was more the sort of thing a Nobel audience is used to hearing: a call for stronger international institutions, a defense of basic human rights and greater economic equity.

Obama closed with an assault on the religious fanatics responsible for much of the bloodshed in the world and offered an aphorism that will undoubtedly make its way into compilations of deathless quotations: “No holy war can ever be a just war.”

And then a lovely peroration:

Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he’s outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace.  Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on.  Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school — because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child’s dreams.

Let us live by their example.

This is precisely the way an American President should address the world. No matter your politics, Barack Obama did our nation proud today.

And also: There was a fun bit of byplay between the President and First Lady earlier in the morning, at a small ceremony where Obama was asked to sign the Nobel Guest Book. The President wrote and wrote–in his tiny, precise script, his left hand curled torturously around the back of the pen–and finally his wife asked, “What are you writing, a book?”

The First Lady was then asked to add a few words: “Mine will be shorter,” she said.

“She will resist writing something sarcastic,” the President said, “since this will be recorded for the future.”