Reactions to the President’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize have for the most part been modestly positive, even from Republicans who uttered faint praise in the midst of denunciations of the prize and its recipient.
In the New Republic, TDS Co-Editor William Galston went further than most Democrats or Republicans, callling it “the best speech of Obama’s presidency.”
What struck me most favorably about the speech was Obama’s moral realism–about the world, and about his own role within it. Forcefully, but with dignity and restraint, he distinguished his responsibilities from those of King and Gandhi, who led nonviolently as private citizens. “Evil does exist in the world,” he declared, and as long as it does, war is a moral possibility, sometimes a moral necessity. And not only to defeat evil; “the instruments of war,” he said, “do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”
Aside from his effort to articulate a realistic “just war” philosophy, Obama’s speech, says Galston, also struck a nicely nuanced note about a subject many feel he has shirked since taking office, the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy:
He went on to describe the kind of peace America seeks: “Peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting. It was this insight that drove drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War. In the wake of devastation, they recognized that if human rights are not protected, peace is a hollow promise.”
But all too often, Obama continued, their principles are ignored. In some countries, leaders falsely suggest that human rights are merely aspects of the West, foreign to and imposed on non-Western cultures. In America, realists and idealists contend endlessly against one another.
“I reject this choice,” the president declared. “I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please, choose their own leaders, or assemble without fear. Pent up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true: only when Europe became free did it finally find peace.” These truths have practical implications for the conduct of American foreign policy. “Even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries,” Obama promised, “America will be a voice for those aspirations that are universal.”
It was certainly an unusual speech for a politician and a head of state; you could no more imagine George W. Bush giving it than you could imagine Bush receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in the first place. But Galston views it as potentially a harbinger of the future direction of Obama’s foreign policy, and a “better balance between private engagement and public firmness, and between carrots and sticks,” in terms of diplomatic relations with repressive regimes.