In-Depth Analysis

Peace and the Social Condition: Barack Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

The means have a way of determining the ends. This is the proposition that informs my review and analysis of President Obama’s Nobel Lecture (Obama, 2009) as an exploration of the topic of peace and the social condition. I think Obama confronted complexity of the social condition, though the situation of his winning the prize was both awkward and rightly controversial from a variety of different points of view.

Obama’s Peace Prize was exciting, strange and provocative. There was political poetry and hope in it: the better part of America and its relationship with Europe and the world were being celebrated, as there was the hope that the dark side of American hegemony had passed. But there was also confusion: exactly why did Obama win the prize?

Obama’s critics saw in the prize confirmation that Obama was a cult figure, an eloquent player, but with no substance, winning the Nobel Prize for Peace before he accomplished anything on the global stage. Even his supporters were not sure exactly what to make of it. I was more convinced than most, but I understood my argument approving of his winning the Nobel Prize, published in Poland’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, as a provocation. Clearly, even Obama understood that there was a problem. As he noted in the opening of his lecture:

“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. (Laughter.) 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’ve received this prize – Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela – my accomplishments are slight.”

But he turned this to his advantage, at least in giving his speech. The speech became an exploration of the complex relationship between war and peace, as he put it: “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.” He further reflected upon the role of political leadership, particularly his. It was a speech about the social condition and peace and his confrontation with this.

Obama understood the larger issue. Although rightly appreciated for his dissent from the geo-political and military policies of his predecessor, and clearly more reluctant to engage in military aggression, less unilateral in his orientation and deeply critical of the war in Iraq from the beginning, all good reasons to identify him with peace, he was still the leader of the premier military power in the world.

“But 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.”

The leader of the global hegemon as the Nobel Peace Laureate – he understood that there is a problem and made this the topic of his lecture.

The dilemmas as he saw them in his lecture:

“I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.”

He reviewed arguments for just wars, as he recognized that the need for such justification has been ignored for much of human history. Central values he identified were the fight for human rights and the struggle against human degradation, and also the need to minimize civilian causalities. But problems result. He observed:

“And while it’s 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.”

He noted that real enemies continue, even with the demise of the totalitarian threats of the twentieth century:

“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.”

And he drew the tragic observation:

“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: 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.”

Obama’s opponents accused him of making vacuous promises in his first Presidential campaign. We hear in his lecture quite the opposite. He was confronting the central difficulty. The pursuit of peace often includes the willingness to engage in military struggle, but that means peace, as an ideal, will, therefore, not be realized.

Note: this paradox, in his cogent account, is not the result of some fundamental innate aggressive drive, and there is no need to posit evil or sin as the cause of the paradox. Obama shows that we are locked into a dilemma. Peace includes the fight for rights and dignity, but in engaging in the fight, peace can and often is undermined. Aggressive and sinful drives do not explain this. It is woven into the fabric of social interaction. But Obama’s response to this suggests why his Nobel Prize may have had justification.

Meeting the Challenge

He started with humility, trying to stand on the shoulders of giants:

“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 [referring here to the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights]. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.”

The humility is based on his sense of who he is and how he came to be delivering his lecture:

“I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. 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 work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”

Yet, he also knows this is in tension with his present responsibilities:

“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 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.”

Informed by President John F. Kennedy, he explored the possibilities for achieving peace not through a radical reform of human nature, but “a gradual evolution of human institutions.”

“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, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.”

In light of recent events, specifically: the failure to close the prison at Guantanamo, the drone program, secret operations and the like, these words seem to stand as an indictment of Obama’s own policies. I think the remainder of the speech confirms this. Obama’s words stand as the basis of criticism of his own deeds, as his deeds suggests possible answers to the criticism informed by his words.

“Furthermore, America – in fact, no nation – can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.”

He understands that there have to be rules governing the conduct of military force in order for that force to have any chance to provide the basis of peace. Yet, he oversees and expands the unilateral use of drone warfare without clearly articulated and generally agreed upon rules of this deadly military game.

The Nobel Laureate Obama as critic of President Obama:

“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 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 – we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”

But the Nobel Laureate would not be surprised by the President’s actions as he observed: “Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.” He presents guidance about how he should proceed, suggesting specific ways that we can build a just and lasting peace, with the different ways built upon a single vision. He explained in detail his position but then summarized:

“Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All 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, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more – and that’s the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there’s something irreducible that we all share.”

… if we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what’s 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 condition makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”

Obama’s position is nuanced, thoughtful and political (in both the good and the bad sense). He identifies with radical peace advocates, those who present a principled opposition to violence, but as a responsible politician he cannot live by their principles alone. Thus, the tension between his stated ideals and his policies.

There are two ways of interpreting this. Either he is a hypocrite or a statesman. He is able to depict ideals in his speech, and to declare commitment to their pursuit, but he is also committed to dealing with difficult realities in consequential ways in his actions.  How we judge the relationship between the ideal and the reality is a matter of political opinion, more or less informed.

Some are sure that Obama’s Peace Prize was undeserved and that his subsequent actions confirmed this. Not only did he do little before he won the prize. Subsequently, he has not acted as a Nobel Peace Laureate should. He escalated the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. drone program has been greatly expanding during his watch, without clear justification and without a public specification of its limits. And under his leadership the U.S. played a key role in the war in Libya. In many ways, he has continued Bush’s policies and directions.

Others will counter that Obama actually has helped de-militarize American foreign policy, winding down two wars. He has publicly and clearly affirmed U.S. commitments to respect the Geneva Agreements and ended the American use of torture, so called “enhanced interrogation.” And under Obama’s leadership, American military engagements have been multilateral and debated in and supported by the United Nations. This was noteworthy Libya, and is being repeated right now in Mali. His policy of “leadership from behind” which is much ridiculed by his militaristic critics, certainly appears as a step in the direction of a more peaceful world order. The term refers to a change in the use of American force in the world. It suggests that the U.S. will not use military force on its own without international support.  Rather than imposing American will with America’s overwhelming power, he seeks to embed American power within internationally legitimate concerted actions.

I actually appreciate both this support and criticism of Obama. Both are consistent with Obama’s lecture. On the positive side, in a threatening world, he has somehow managed to work for the ideal of peace, but he has also fallen short of the very ideals that he has publicly embraced. His lecture illuminates both the criticism and the appreciation, worthy of careful consideration by those concerned with the issue of peace in our times. The commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military force struggling with the dilemmas of the power at his disposal, an intriguing exercise, worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, as he confronts the social condition.

Goldfarb, Jeffrey C., December 3, 2012, “Lincoln:Art and Politics,” Deliberately Considered.

Goldfarb, Jeffrey C., December 13, 2012, “The Social Condition,” Deliberately Considered.

Makiya,, Kanan, 1998, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, University of California Press.

Michels, Robert, 2008, Political Parties, A Sociological Study of The Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, Kessinger Publishing, LLC (originally 1915).

Obama, Barack, 2009, “A Just and Lasting Peace,” Nobel Lecture.

  • Tara Rahman

    Barack Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize. On 9th October 2009 Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “extraordinary……. for details..

  • Adam

    This is a great piece Jeffrey, well done. Other articles and opinions I’ve read have settled for far simpler for or against statements.

    This speech could be the most intriguing and nuanced one I’ve ever heard and I almost feel like saying he should’ve received the prize solely for delivering such quality of thought and poetry in politics. Of course he’s more deserving than just that. Although I completely understand why it was a controversial decision…and still is, I feel sometimes words do matter a lot, visions of how a type of world peace can be reached (which is really what the speech is ultimately trying to deal with) and a pragmatic crystal clear roadmap like this one can make a huge difference in the world if said by a man in the most powerful political position in the world. Peace through deeper international consensus and cooperation, through strengthening institutions like the UN. These should really be the map to world peace!

    I might also mention world peace has been subject to much ridicule and mocking because of the overly ambitious dreams of hippies, how brave is it then to base a whole speech on the notion and give a roadmap to achieving it that actually seems tenable