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Oslo humanitarianism

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COMMENTS

14 December 2009 08:31

I agree with Sam that Obama's Nobel Lecture was excellent — significantly better, in fact, than his speech the previous week to cadets at the US Military Academy in West Point.

If there's a rap against Obama's speechmaking, it is that — like most of us — he enjoys applause lines. Obama is not known for giving hard speeches to friendly audiences. But his Oslo speech was certainly not the one his audience would have expected, or wanted. Rather, his remarks as he received the world's biggest peace prize centred on a principled defence of the use of force for humanitarian purposes.

'We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth', said Obama, 'that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.' After recognizing the impact that both Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi had had on his life, he said this:

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. 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 is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history: the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

At the same time, Obama implicitly criticized the unilateralism, and the excessive methods, of his predecessor George W Bush.

While Obama reserved 'the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation', he also asserted that 'adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates — and weakens — those who don't. America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don't, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention — no matter how justified.'

This is a clear rejection of the notion of preventive war and an obvious signal that his Administration intends to work through the UN Security Council except in cases of 'self defence or the defence of one nation against an aggressor.' Obama also reiterated his belief that, where force is used, 'we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.' This statement is not just about torture, Guantanamo Bay and the Geneva Conventions. It is a broader declaration that the United States' unique history and position does not liberate it from the rules that apply to all nations.

There were other interesting points in the Lecture: a strong defence of human rights twinned with a commitment to engagement, even if diplomacy sometimes 'lacks the satisfying purity of indignation'; and an affirmation that human rights involves economic as well as political rights — that both freedom and prosperity matter.

But to me, the most important of Obama's arguments were his powerful defence of the use of force on humanitarian grounds, and his rejection of the view that America's great contributions to global security and prosperity entitle it to double standards.