President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize today by asking “difficult questions” about war and peace, while acknowledging he is a first-year president and a superpower commander-in-chief who is sending more troops to Afghanistan.
“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated,” Obama said during his acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway. “In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage.”
The president devoted most of his 40-minute address to the ancient but ever-present twin challenges of war and peace.
There are can and have been “just wars,” Obama said, but world leaders should also work for peaceful alternatives that can include tough economic sanctions, negotiating with enemies, and eliminating global poverty.
“We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace,” Obama said. “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 expressed “deep gratitude and great humility” for the Nobel Peace Prize, which “speaks to out highest aspirations … 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.”
The speech included a defense of the Afghanistan war as well as other actions necessary to confront the threat from terrorists seeking nuclear weapons. Obama also outlined his goals for a nuclear weapons-free world that takes on challenges of climate change, disease, and poverty.
The president sprinkled his remarks with tributes to past Nobel Peace Prize winners, including American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and General-turned-Secretary of State George C. Marshall, as well as humanitarian Albert Schweitzer and South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.
“The most profound issue,” Obama said, is that he is commander-in-chief of a military still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. “And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict,” he said,”filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.”
In discussing the history of warfare through the ages, Obama said there have been such things as “just wars.” And he defended U.S. efforts “to underwrite” global security for the six decades since the end of World War II.
“Make no mistake, evil does exist in the world,” Obama, citing the Nazis and al Qaeda terrorists as example. That holds true today in a world “buckling under the weight of new threats,” including terrorists seeking nuclear weapons.
Yet though it may be necessary, Obama said, “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 feelings,” the president said.
Obama devoted much of his address to three ways in which the world can avoid the “tragic choices” of conflict, and “build a just and lasting peace.”
One is developing alternatives to punish wayward nations, including effective economic sanctions; the second is promotion of human rights, including potentially difficult diplomacy with potential enemies.
“I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation,” Obama said. “But I also know that sanctions without outreach — and condemnation without discussion — can carry forward a crippling status quo.”
As examples, Obama cited President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to communist China; Pope John Paul II’s outreach to communist Poland; and Ronald Reagan’s dealings with the soon-to-crumble Soviet Union.
A third alternative to war is improving economic opportunity throughout the world. “True peace is not just freedom from fear,” Obama said, “but freedom from want.”
When war is necessary, the U.S. and others should abide by a code of conduct, Obama said. He drew applause when he mentioned his decision to ban torture of prisoners and to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war,” Obama said.
Obama is the fourth U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He cited one of his predecessors, Woodrow Wilson, honored in 1919 for creating the League of Nations even though the Senate rejected membership in it.
The other presidential winners were Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Jimmy Carter in 2002, more than two decades after his term in office.