Obama’s peace prize speech prompts debate on ethics of war

Published December 11, 2009

New YorkObservers in the United States had varying reactions to the address by U.S. President Barack Obama, when, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he condemned religious-inspired violence but also offered a defense of the just-war tradition.In his Dec.10  speech, Obama said that, “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.”Still, the U.S. leader added that religion had been used “dangerously” 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 the divine will, then there is no need for restraint – no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, 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 I believe it is incompatible with the very 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.”At the same time, Obama spoke of the just-war tradition, which has religious roots, and said the world must acknowledge what he called a “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 said.The Christian Science Monitor reported praise from former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican and potential presidential candidate in 2012, who credited Obama for taking a realistic view of war and peace.At the same time, the Monitor noted the reaction of peace activist Paul Kawika Martin, of the anti-war group Peace Action, which has criticized Obama’s commitment to expanding the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.Martin said that while he and other activists credited Obama for his stated commitment to nuclear disarmament, “We believe he has missed opportunities to advance non-military solutions to conflict by dramatically increasing troop levels in Afghanistan.”In his peace prize address, Obama acknowledged his debt, as the first black president of the United States, to the life and example of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., another Nobel laureate and an advocate of non-violence.Still, Obama said that as a leader and head of state “sworn to protect and defend my nation”, he could not be solely guided by the example of King and others like Mahatma Gandhi, the non-violent campaigner for the independence of India from Britain.”I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people,” Obama said. “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.”One commentator, Fred Kaplan, writing in the on-line magazine Slate, noted that Obama’s speech was “a faithful reflection” of the views of the theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Obama has acknowledged as an influence on his own thinking.As Kaplan noted, Niebuhr had emphasized in his 1952 book “The Irony of American History” what he described as, “the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historical configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue.”To some observers, Obama’s speech acknowledged similar dynamics by saying that, “We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.”At the same time, the U.S. president spoke of the need to acknowledge the need for idealism, and asserted, “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 fundamental faith in human progress – that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.”


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