Thursday, December 10, 2009

War and Peace

Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, President Obama was compelled to reconcile that award with his pursuit of a military solution in Afghanistan:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that 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 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's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is 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 is sometimes 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 because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.

Yet the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions - not just treaties and declarations - that brought stability to a post-World War II world. 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. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so 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.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths - that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."

Paradoxical? Yes. Hypocritical? Maybe. Did he have a choice? It seems to me he either had to turn down the prize or try to explain the paradox. The prize still seems justifiable to me because of the change in direction of this country that the Obama campaign brought about, and because of President Obama's efforts against nuclear proliferation and his efforts to reach out to the Muslim world. The fact that we are conducting a military campaign to keep other military organizations (the Taliban and Al Qaeda) out of power should not disqualify the President from receiving the prize. These are illegitimate actors who do not respond to diplomatic efforts, and who have rejected the option of participating in the political process. Sometimes you do have to make war to keep the peace, and you do not have to be a pacifist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


  1. Obama's claim that international institutions are the key to keeping peace and preventing suffering are wrong and dangerous ideas. Think Bosnia, Tibet, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, etc...

  2. I think in all of those examples, the problem was that the UN or other international organizations did not do enough, not that we relied on international institutions.

  3. They did not do enough because we relied on international institutions, that's why they're worthless unless one country (America) sticks its neck out and LEADS.

  4. You are probably right that many international institutions are not of much value unless the United States takes a leading role. The League of Nations, for example, was of little value because we were not involved. The Kyoto Treaty was of limited value because the United States did not support it.

    But in the specific situations that you gave as examples, which were mainly civil wars, it is pretty difficult for the United States to justify intervention unless it goes in with the support of the United Nations or NATO or a coalition of other nations. Such interventions without partners are not only difficult to do as a practical matter, they may also violate international law.