Nobel Peace Prize

NOBEL PEACE PRIZE…. The underlying awkwardness of President Obama’s speech this morning in receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was hard to overlook. He is, after all, a leader less than one year into his first term, overseeing two wars — one of which he chose to escalate just last week.

And so, at the outset, the president acknowledged the “great humility” with which he accepted the honor.

“…I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight.

“And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women — some known, some obscure to all but those they help — to be far more deserving of this honor than I.”

But as he presented his vision, Obama did what he’s so often done: he walked a fine line, carefully but effectively. He praised the legacy of Gandhi and King, but acknowledged, “As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.” He honored the value of peace and stability, but conceded, “There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” He noted that some around the world are suspicious of American military might, but defended the nation’s role, saying, “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.”

And he highlighted the “tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists,” before rejecting the distinction as false.

Perhaps most importantly, while the president’s foreign policy is not yet associated with a “doctrine,” per se, Obama did identify the “three ways that we can build a just and lasting peace.”

“First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior — for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure — and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one. […]

This brings me to a second point — the nature of the peace that we seek. For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting. […]

“Third, a just peace includes not only civil and political rights — it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want. It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.”

I was also particularly impressed with his defense of his embrace of dialog and diplomacy. Note the not-so-subtle dig at the right.

“Let me also say this: the promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — and condemnation without discussion — can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

“In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable — and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty, and connected to open societies. Pope John Paul’s engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan’s efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. There is no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement; pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.”

Watching the speech, I was also reminded of the “visionary incrementalism” that’s come to define President Obama’s worldview.

“We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us. But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their faith in human progress — must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

“For if we lose that faith — if we dismiss it as silly or naive; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace — then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.

“Like generations have before us, we must reject that future. As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago, ‘I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.’

“So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, 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, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

“Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.”

Obama’s vision for the future isn’t easy or clean, but he’s committed to hanging on that arc, doing his best to bend it towards justice.

Update: At 2 p.m. (ET), Washington Monthly Editor in Chief Paul Glastris will be on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” discussing the speech with former Reagan spechwriter Pete Robinson. Be sure to check it out.