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Obama's Oslo clangers

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COMMENTS

14 December 2009 15:58

I agree with Sam and Michael that there were some fine passages in Obama’s Nobel Prize speech. The 'somewhere today' peroration worked especially well. But unlike them, I found the speech unimpressive overall, for two reasons.

First, Obama's argument for the necessity of armed force in an imperfect world was preferable to the kind of naïve pacifism that one most often hears at such occasions. But it sets the bar too low to praise a president for not talking rubbish. And some of what he did say was pretty flaccid:

Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.

This is idle rhetoric that directly undermines the acknowledgment of human imperfectability that Sam likes best about the speech. But it’s worse than goopy. As I've observed here before, the tragedy of international affairs is that we do need to make choices between justice and order. Immodest attempts to build a perfectly just, perfectly orderly world inevitably lead to less justice and more disorder. This is the reality that Realism is all about. 

Statesmanship is about finding the balance between justice and order. That is what Nixon did when he opened to China, as Obama acknowledges. Pretending you can have both is not statesmanship but mere politics, and I must say that is how the speech sounded to me. Obama wants to be on both sides of every argument; reinforcing and withdrawing in Afghanistan, a realist and an idealist in Oslo. 

My second reason for disliking the speech was that it contained a sprinkling of clangers. There are two in this passage:

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.

Capitalising 'Evil' is inexcusable, and any comparison between al Qaeda and Nazism is better avoided. 

A third clanger was Obama's description of America later in the speech as 'the world's sole military superpower'. It is a familiar phrase – a cliché, indeed – but I think it perpetuates a Bush era view of American power that Obama should avoid.

The phrase embodies an assumption that America's armed forces are so superior to all others that the US can achieve any strategic result it wishes anywhere in the world against anyone at acceptable levels of cost and risk. 

Of course, that was never true. Iraq and Afghanistan both show that. But more importantly, Russia and China do too. America can project more power further than anyone else, but it can't project enough power to defeat a major power on its own doorstep. It can't protect Georgia or the Ukraine from Russia, nor Taiwan from China. 

America will find it hard to get its role in the world right until that phrase has been dropped from the presidential lexicon.

Photo by Flickr user C.Bryant, used under a Creative Commons license.

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