In the October announcement of its decision to bestow the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on U.S. President Barack Obama, the Norwegian Nobel Committee attached special importance to his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” The committee also praised the U.S. president by stating: “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”
But the prevailing political circumstances seem to have forced Mr. Obama to put more stress on realism in international politics than on ideals and hope. In his acceptance speech, entitled “A Just and Lasting Peace,” given in Oslo Dec. 10, he acknowleged that occasions arise when use of military force becomes necessary to realize peace.
Clearly aware of criticism, especially in the United States, that he cannot claim any concrete achievements of a global scale, Mr. Obama was humble in the opening part of his speech. He said, “I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage.”
A Gallup poll taken a week after the Norwegian committee’s announcement found that 34 percent thought that Mr. Obama deserved the prize, while 61 percent did not. The results of a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Dec. 9 showed that only 19 percent of respondents thought Mr. Obama deserved the prize now, with 35 percent regarding it likely that he will eventually accomplish enough to deserve it, and more than 40 percent believing that he will never deserve the prize.
Mr. Obama also admitted that “my accomplishments are slight” when compared with people like Albert Schweitzer (the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner), Martin Luther King Jr. (the 1964 winner of the prize), George Marshall (former U.S. Secretary of State known for the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction after World War II) and Nelson Mandela (the 1993 recipient of the prize).
The acceptance ceremony came nine days after Mr. Obama announced that he will send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and the fact that his administration is waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly weighed on his mind. He acknowledged that “perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.”
Calling attention to threats to peace, especially terrorism, and expounding on the concept of “just war,” Mr. Obama displayed a realistic outlook: “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. . . So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”
This remark can be taken as an effort to solicit understanding of his decision to step up U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan. He also said, “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.”
One should feel relieved to hear Mr. Obama say that “no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. . . War itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.” Any national leader who uses military force, including Mr. Obama himself, should be called on to ask themselves whether their actions are consistent with this insight.
Referring to the non-violence of men like Dr. King and Indian nationalist and spiritual leader Mohandas Gandhi, Mr. Obama said that “the love they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must be the North Star that guides us on our journey,” adding that if we lose that faith, “we lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.”
Yet Mr. Obama said that the world should “stand together as one” to deal with nations that break rules and laws, that “our urgent example is the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to seek a world without them,” and that upholding the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime is a “centerpiece of my foreign policy.” One cannot doubt his seriousness.
No doubt, behind such statements is a realistic calculation that stricter international controls on nuclear weapons and their eventual disappearance from the face of Earth would enhance the security of the U.S., through the reduced risk of being attacked by a nuclear-armed enemy nation or organization. But the same benefits extend to the entire world.
Conspicuously, Mr. Obama failed to mention the moral dictate that no nation nor group should ever use nuclear weapons, which cause devastating and long-continuing damage to human life. Still, the world must not lose momentum toward reaching the goal of nuclear arms reduction and nuclear disarmament, which Mr. Obama helped to promote with his speech in Prague in April. Now is the time for Mr. Obama and other leaders to act in earnest and take concrete steps towards eradicating the peril of nuclear weapons.
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