President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech yesterday drew praise from both the left and right. The praise from the left is hardly surprising, but accolades from both the Wall Street Journal editorial board and Sarah Palin are noteworthy. The strong response from conservatives tended to focus on the section of the speech were Obama meditates on the notion of “just war” and the meaning of a President fighting two wars receiving the Peace Prize.
“But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation ... 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.”
This portion of the speech, arguing both that war may be justified and using the word “evil”, led other commentators to argue that Obama was simply using his flowery rhetoric to say the same things put more bluntly by his predecessor. Historian Walter Russell Mead from the Council on Foreign Relations argues that Obama is simply better than Bush at selling the same policies. He argues,
“Barack Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize was a carefully reasoned defense of a foreign policy that differs very little from George Bush's... If Bush had said these things the world would be filled with violent denunciations. When Obama says them, people purr.”
Similar sentiments have been echoed elsewhere on the right. The only problem is that President Bush would have never given a speech like this. Let’s call it the “Only Obama Could Go To Oslo” phenomenon. Obama accepts the prize for peace and makes the case for the necessity of war. However, the greatest differences between Bush and Obama were not in what Obama said, but in those things left unsaid. There was no discussion of Iraq, other than the oblique reference to a war that “is winding down.” No discussion of the need to use U.S. power to spread American ideals. And while Obama did mention evil in the world, there is no talk of good versus evil.
In fact, while Obama front-loads the discussion of just war, the speech ranged over a number of topics that draw upon a broad array of international relations theories. The clear-eyed discussion of war reflects political realism, while the call for the United States to adhere to global standards reflects idealism. The significance of international institutions in maintaining the post-war order mixes in neoliberal institutionalism, while arguing that, “America alone cannot secure the peace,” draws in traditional foreign policy liberals. For good measure, Obama includes a discussion on democratic peace (“America has never fought a war against a democracy”), just war (“philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war”), classical realism (“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.”), and clash of civilizations-type arguments (“the cultural leveling of modernity… people fear the loss of what they cherish in their particular identities”).
If anything, the Oslo speech seems to undergird Obama’s emphasis on addressing the complexity of the problems confronting the United States and the administration’s emphasis on “smart power.” While the meaning of “smart power” remains broad enough to be frustratingly elusive, the general emphasis of Obama’s speech seemed to be that it is critical to find the proper diplomatic tool to fit the job. Thus, to Nobel speech can draw praise from across the American political spectrum, because it acknowledges a simple point: the Obama’s foreign policy will draw on a broad array of international relations theories. While this may frustrate those who seek clear and simple guiding principles in U.S. foreign policy, it offers hope to those that believe context is critical.