I didn’t have time until last night to read President Obama’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. I have been critical of the Nobel committee’s decision, but let’s give credit where credit is due: The speech was one that Americans ought to be proud of.
There was appropriate humility, acknowledgment that “compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize…my accomplishments are slight.” He nodded to more obscure seekers of peace and justice in repressive regimes around the world, and said “I cannot argue with those who find these men and women…to be far more deserving of this honor than I.”
For once, Obama did not speak as a president burdened with atoning for decades, centuries of American sins. He spoke forthrightly about how “America led the world” in building the post-World War II peace, “a legacy for which [America] is rightfully proud.”
He had nuance in the right places and spoke plainly in the right places. That goes double for his words about facing “the world as it is” — a world where “evil does exist,” and where sometimes “the use of force [is] not only necessary but morally justified.”
He spoke about these things not gleefully, as some people imagine American neo-cons, but matter of factly. He called attention to our correct uses of force and referred only obliquely (and rather neutrally) to the Iraq war for which he has pilloried his predecessor so often. The examples he gave of leaders who had helped to open up repressive regimes were decidedly conservative: Nixon, Pope John Paul II and Reagan. And in discussing the threats that Iran and North Korea pose, he warned: “Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.”
It was not a speech that will have had European leaders sitting comfortably throughout. For Americans, it was an instance, rare in recent years, of politics stopping at the water’s edge.
As a sort of test of my reaction, I imagined the speech in George Bush’s voice — not out of some pro-Bush or anti-Obama fetish, but because I thought I saw in it concepts that have remained constant across presidencies. And you know what? This was a speech, unlike so many others, that works in the voice of Obama, Bush and many of their predecessors.
As further testimony to that notion, Peter Feaver writes at Foreign Policy magazine’s Web site that this was Obama’s least partisan speech to date. And Robert Kagan, a neo-con if there ever was one, describes the speech as “a substantial shift, back in the direction of a more muscular moralism, a la, Truman, Reagan.”
If nothing else, this was a verbal funnel through which Obama’s sometimes muddled and inconsistent foreign policy could be drawn and focused. The key of course is going beyond words and acting on these beliefs. But these words are a good start.