U.S. President Barack Obama presented his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, earlier today.
The headline you will read in the mass media regarding the speech will likely be some variation of “Obama defends US wars as he accepts peace prize.”
The press will be doing its self-anointed job of distilling the events of the day down to the lowest common denominator. In the meantime, most of what happened will be unreported or edited out in a race to the bottom, in search of something simple enough they think the great unwashed masses can understand.
In reality, U.S. President Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize is much more complex than what you will likely see reported. And while I would not lower myself to classify it as beyond the reach of many news celebrities who populate the media, I will state categorically that its various aspects, messages and subtleties are not elements that they get paid to pay attention to or promote.
While delivered in an international setting and containing many messages to that international audience, Obama’s speech was primarily domestic in nature, positioning him as a pragmatic realist, a staunch defender of freedom and America, and a true war time president in the truest sense of the phrase. The purposes of this positioning include:
• Offset his left/liberal/progressive positioning in the domestic political spectrum
• Gain favor with moderate Democrats and Republicans who are required to support his Afghanistan campaign
• Buy domestic political cover for first term Democrat representatives and others politically exposed by his domestic policies in the upcoming 2010 congressional elections
While delivering these domestic investments, the speech also included specific messages for the international audience, in this case, the Western Europeans. The Western Europeans form the core of the NATO alliance and thus are desperately needed in NATO’s first foreign war, Afghanistan. In addition, the Europeans function as gatekeepers for support in the U.N., in this case specifically related to upcoming attempts to impose additional sanctions on Iran and North Korea.
As Obama mentions in his speech, the societies of Western Europe have largely renounced the viability of the use of military force, regardless of circumstance. This perspective is difficult for many Americans to understand. It is often attributed to the result of two generations of Western Europeans living their entire lives within a bubble of peace and prosperity, with essentially no national investment in blood or treasure required to, for lack of a more meaningful phrase, keep the bad guys out. Given this artificially maintained, sterile greenhouse environment, it is no wonder that many current generation Western Europeans reject the use of military force out of hand. The common narrative says that from their perspective, history began in 1947 and since then, they haven’t required the use of any military force to maintain their highly prosperous societies; societies that were free to invest what would have been spent on their own societal protection into very generous cradle-to-grave welfare states. While only one aspect, albeit in the opinion of many the primary aspect, of why Western Europeans overwhelmingly oppose war, particularly in Afghanistan, this is the fundamental aspect of Western European public opinion that Obama worked to leverage this opportunity, this podium, this exposure in Western European media, to alter and offset.
He did it first, in his academic way, by a review of war and war’s impact on humans in general and Western Europeans in particular. He reviewed modern history in the context of war and the institutions created to prevent it, followed by the current perception of war and how war is manifested.
Then came the messaging.
First, he laid out a harsh reality: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”
He then introduced the standard offset to this reality – non-violence: “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 naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”
In the very next sentence comes the “but,” the inoculating qualifier: “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.”
He ends that paragraph with a sentence that invoked his predecessor and must have made for many furrowed brows among the voting committee: “For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.”
The importance of Obama using that phrase to an audience of Western Europeans cannot be overstated. Western Europeans are, by and large, proudly agnostic if not atheist. “Evil,” as a concept, inherently implies “good,” which is itself inexorably tied to the human concept of God, an anathema to many, if not most, Western Europeans. Western Europeans disdained, if not outright hated, George W. Bush, the American president conceptually tied to any phrase using the world “evil.” To invoke “evil” as a justification for military intervention, much less war, does not resonate with a Western European audience, no matter how much it seems logical to many, if not the majority, of Obama’s domestic audience.
He then invoked the core message of his speech: “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida’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.”
This is Obama’s defining world view, as expressed in a Western European venue, accepting a Western European Nobel Peace Prize. It is solidly in the pragmatic school of diplomacy and foreign relations. It is diametrically opposed to the stereotyped version of a utopian, peace at any cost, world view. It is also bitter medicine to the popular, if not prevailing, Western European world view that peace is, more or less, easily possible in any situation if you can only keep the militarists (read: the U.S. and the U.K.) away long enough for it to flower.
This must have introduced even more shudders in the voting committee.
He then laid out specific challenges for the Western Europeans. In street parlance, he “called them out” on specific attitudes and issues: “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.”
He followed that up with a message meant to both acknowledge past mistakes
(and accept the inherent absolution of those sins by doing so) and to restore the U.S. to an inherently high moral ground, entrance therein paid for by the dues of sacrifice: “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.”
This message could have been delivered at a VFW convention. It is striking it was delivered to the heart, the very center, of perhaps the most left leaning, non-totalitarian governments on earth, the Northern Europeans.
Obama then moved into the transition to a call to action on specific steps to advance the cause of peace on the planet. As with every other quote in the speech, he called upon the words of an American: “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 folly. 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.’”
In this section, he once again “called out” the Western Europeans and reinforced his pragmatic perspective of foreign relations: “But in many countries, there is a disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public. I understand why war is not popular. But I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.”
As he stepped through his specific recommendations, he got down to brass tacks with the Western Europeans on the specific, immediate, tactical challenges: “…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.
“But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.”
As to his mortgage holder and rising superpower, China, Obama offered only an oblique reference, designed more as a proposal for a common rhetorical platform upon which the Europeans and the U.S. might stand, “And yet all too often, these words are ignored. In some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation’s development.”
Obama then returned to his primary focus: continuing to rebrand, to reposition, America on the world stage and his messages meant for domestic consumption. He added to the rebranding with, “So even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal.”
This is a return to the traditional, much-loved and admired American brand in the world’s geopolitical market. In its pure form it is unassailable; attacks on it almost inevitably come across as mean spirited, sanctimonious or dogmatic. However, as in the financial challenges of a “guns and butter” domestic policy brand, a global brand of “war when necessary while always, eternally, a shining light of all that is good and right” presents dichotomies that require the utmost skill in brand management to execute and sustain. The question remains yet unanswered if Obama and his team have the requisite level of skill.
As to the domestic audience messaging, he followed with a lengthy justification for engaging repressive regimes, primarily drawing upon the Republican presidential examples of Nixon and Reagan. These references constitute more dues paying to the moderate Democrats and Republicans Obama needs for his domestic agenda and ongoing funding of what is now his Afghanistan war.
Interestingly, in this section he paid homage to Sun Tzu’s maxim in The Art of War, “Build your opponent a golden bridge of retreat.” Obama said, “No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.” Although probably too obscure for most laymen, I doubt this reference was lost on most of the audience. It was yet another war themed message in this acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m sure for many, especially those in attendance, the word ironic struggles to carry the weight of the occasion.
Obama’s call for action consisted of: “Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development.” These are all concrete, pragmatic concepts, easily reduced to existing or easily voted upon, if not funded, U.N., regional, E.U., U.S., and country specific aid and development programs and policies. In addition, he added a required element to any visionary leadership presentation: a stretch goal.
Along the way he showed remarkable insight into the world’s realities: “And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities — their race, their tribe and, perhaps most powerfully, their religion.” This is the closest I’ve seen in modern history of a sitting U.S. president having the remotest clue of how the world and its people works, in reality, on the ground.
He followed with a message that was targeted more for the Islamic world than the Western Europeans, addressing the vast, overwhelming majority of Muslims, who, in the end, are the only people who will ever defeat the Islamists: “Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint — no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith — for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
His final call to action contained all of the highness of ideals that the Nobel Peace Prize implies, and was probably as good as you could get for the context and the times: “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.’”
His closing paragraph offered terms for a world view / foreign policy operating agreement with the Western Europeans: “We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.”
It remains to be seen if they will take him up on it.
The speech contained all the hallmarks of Obama’s public presence: very good to excellent writing, good to very good message management, good understanding of the message delivery context, excellent presentation skills and the ability to seek tactical goals within a strategic message. In addition, it was a unique speech.
The first aspect that made the speech unique is that if you didn’t know who was giving it, reading it would give you the impression it was coming from a center-right to mid-right president. The tone was somewhat defensive of America’s past and present military actions. It invested much of its content to laying out the rationale for military intervention and war. It spoke reverently of America’s military forces and their sacrifices. It was relentlessly American-centric, almost exclusively using Americans for quotes and reference points, save the demi-God, Gandhi. It invested time in paying homage to two Republican presidents. It began by ranking the citizens of America before the citizens of the world. And, it came dangerously close to antagonistic, repeatedly “calling out” the Western Europeans for their world view and non-militaristic foreign policies. It is a salute to Obama’s messaging, writing and oratorical skills, as well as his reverential standing among many outside the U.S., that he could deliver these messages in this form and maintain his market positioning.
Secondly, while the overall war theme may be surprising to most, considering the event was the acceptance of his Nobel Peace Prize, it is important to understand that a shooting war with Iran is a very distinct near- to mid-term possibility, with strategic and tactical preparations actively underway by Israel, the U.S., Turkey, Iran, the Middle East and Russia. Consequently, Obama used this opportunity to very clearly communicate to the Western Europeans, and by extension all stakeholders, what general terms and conditions will trigger that conflict. Viewed through the lens of impending regional conflict, the overall theme of war in a peace prize ceremony may be more understandable.
Of course, everything beyond “Obama defends US wars as he accepts peace prize” will likely be lost on the mass media. In this event, as all others, it is up to the rest of us to seek out the reality on our own.
Full Text of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech
By The Associated Press
The text of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, delivered Thursday in Oslo, Norway, as provided by the White House:
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Distinguished Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, citizens of America, and citizens of the world:
I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that speaks to our highest aspirations — that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.
And yet 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 perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 43 other countries — including Norway — in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.
Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict — filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.
These questions are not new. War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.
Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers, clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.
For most of history, this concept of just war was rarely observed. The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations — total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred. In the span of 30 years, such carnage would twice engulf this continent. And while it is hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a conflict in which the total number of civilians who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished.
In the wake of such destruction, and with the advent of the nuclear age, it became clear to victor and vanquished alike that the world needed institutions to prevent another World War. And so, a quarter century after the United States Senate rejected the League of Nations — an idea for which Woodrow Wilson received this Prize — America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace: a Marshall Plan and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide and restrict the most dangerous weapons.
In many ways, these efforts succeeded. Yes, terrible wars have been fought, and atrocities committed. But there has been no Third World War. The Cold War ended with jubilant crowds dismantling a wall. Commerce has stitched much of the world together. Billions have been lifted from poverty. The ideals of liberty, self-determination, equality and the rule of law have haltingly advanced. We are the heirs of the fortitude and foresight of generations past, and it is a legacy for which my own country is rightfully proud.
A decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats. The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.
Moreover, wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts, the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies and failed states have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos. In today’s wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed and children scarred.
I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.
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 naive 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 nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaidas 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 worlds 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 people’s 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 soldiers 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 folly. 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.”
What might this evolution look like? What might these practical steps be?
To begin with, I believe that all nations — strong and weak alike — must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates — and weakens — those who dont.
The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense. Likewise, the world recognized the need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait — a consensus that sent a clear message to all about the cost of aggression.
Furthermore, America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention — no matter how justified.
This becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.
America’s commitment to global security will never waver. But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. This is true in Afghanistan. This is true in failed states like Somalia, where terrorism and piracy is joined by famine and human suffering. And sadly, it will continue to be true in unstable regions for years to come.
The leaders and soldiers of NATO countries — and other friends and allies — demonstrate this truth through the capacity and courage they have shown in Afghanistan. But in many countries, there is a disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public. I understand why war is not popular. But I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That is why NATO continues to be indispensable. That is why we must strengthen U.N. and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries. That is why we honor those who return home from peacekeeping and training abroad to Oslo and Rome; to Ottawa and Sydney; to Dhaka and Kigali — we honor them not as makers of war, but as wagers of peace.
Let me make one final point about the use of force. Even as we make difficult decisions about going to war, we must also think clearly about how we fight it. The Nobel Committee recognized this truth in awarding its first prize for peace to Henry Dunant — the founder of the Red Cross, and a driving force behind the Geneva Conventions.
Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.
I have spoken to the questions that must weigh on our minds and our hearts as we choose to wage war. But let me turn now to our effort to avoid such tragic choices, and speak of 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.
One urgent example is the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them. In the middle of the last century, nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear: All will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work toward disarmament. I am committed to upholding this treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy. And I am working with President Medvedev to reduce America and Russia’s nuclear stockpiles.
But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.
The same principle applies to those who violate international law by brutalizing their own people. When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo or repression in Burma — there must be consequences. And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.
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.
It was this insight that drove drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War. In the wake of devastation, they recognized that if human rights are not protected, peace is a hollow promise.
And yet all too often, these words are ignored. In some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation’s development. And within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists — a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values.
I reject this choice. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please, choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests — nor the worlds — are served by the denial of human aspirations.
So even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal. We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran. It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear to these movements that hope and history are on their side.
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.
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.
And that is why helping farmers feed their own people — or nations educate their children and care for the sick — is not mere charity. It is also why the world must come together to confront climate change. There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, famine and mass displacement that will fuel more conflict for decades. For this reason, it is not merely scientists and activists who call for swift and forceful action — it is military leaders in my country and others who understand that our common security hangs in the balance.
Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All of these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, or the staying power, to complete this work without something more — and that is the continued expansion of our moral imagination, an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share.
As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are, to understand that we all basically want the same things, that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.
And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities — their race, their tribe and, perhaps most powerfully, their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we are moving backwards. We see it in the Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.
Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint — no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith — for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. 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 nonviolence 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 deprivation, 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.