Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech

(NNPA)—As one of the first to defend President Obama’s selection for the Nobel Peace Prize, I also believe that his speech was much more than an adequate expression of the contradictions in which he found himself by being selected.

The first contradiction was created by the fact that Obama was selected by the Nobel Committee essentially because he presented to the world a new vision of American leadership in the global arena that rejected the failed policies of George Bush and that pointed the way to resuming collaboration with its allies for productive purposes.


Some of those purposes were elaborated even after he had been selected, in speeches in Europe, Egypt and the Caribbean that contained new elements of American policy such as: the restoration of diplomacy as the lead action and not militarism as a vital aspect of resolving crises, the total elimination of nuclear weapons, resuming the Middle East peace negotiations, seeking the normalization of relations with Cuba, proposing a new green global economy, and the like.

Obama, however, used his Nobel speech to answer the contradiction of being selected as a sitting head of state who inherited two wars—something the Nobel Committee already knew when they selected him.  Given his situation, he suggested that “the instruments of war do have a role in preserving the peace,” as in World War II, or in the establishment of a new order of human rights as in the Civil War.

His defense of the war in Afghanistan, however, was more difficult because he had just designed a policy that sent 30,000 more troops into that country, something I and the American people rejected. However, I see even this action as his version of a transition to peace, since 18 months later he has mandated the beginning of a withdrawal of American military troops. Furthermore, he rejected the role of America as an occupier and suggested that his policy objective in the long run will use civilians to conduct social and economic programs to boost the viability of the Country and to defend itself.

I think that those who are critical of his speech make a big mistake by comparing Obama to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. They stand historically in very different roles with different responsibilities.

The current wars have been justified by President Obama as “necessary” in seeking retribution for the killing of 3,000 people on American soil.  That creates a contradiction between the responsibilities of statecraft for retribution and the pursuit of nonviolence as a strategy to resolve problems.

What we ought to understand is that both Dr. King and Gandhi used force—moral force—in order to confront the evils of the social order with which they were faced, but at times that force resulted in violent reactions that took the lives of people or otherwise harmed many. In that sense, neither movement was “nonviolent.” So, I think that we must consider more deeply that the methods for achieving peace often involve the use of various kinds of force and that the purposes of the use of force are critical in the debate over whether Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize constituted a grander contradiction than any other.

Obama used the concept of the “just war” to discuss this. Peace with justice must be seen to be within the objectives of the Nobel Committee, even given the methodology of force that is used. I remember that when the African National Congress in South Africa was called up before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to justify its guerrilla war actions against Whites, they said they were conducting a “just war.”

War as the only instrument left to them to regain standing in their country by an oppressive White minority regime, so it was an instrument they believed they would eventually lead to a just peace—and the society has since moved substantially in that direction. I believe that President Obama has, again, risen to the mark to make the best of a set of contradictory situations and that this prize and his speech may serve as guideposts for his administration to truly seek justice in both international and domestic affairs.

(Ron Walters is professor emeritus of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.)


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