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Barack Obama’s Thoughtful, Misleading Nobel Acceptance Speech In Oslo

December 12, 2009

US President Barack Obama breezed into Oslo with typical high-handed insouciance to pick up his undeserved Nobel Prize. He arrived with a huge, disruptive security presence and insisted that his tight schedule would not allow him to stick around for the second day of festivities, including lunch with King Harald, that would normally attend a Peace Prize. Unaccountably, the Norwegians gave him the prize anyway instead of sending him packing with proper Viking brusqueness, although they may have regretted their decision when they sat down to listen to his acceptance speech. Choice passages from the first three paragraphs:

I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility.

Ah. Great humility. That explains why you blew off lunch with His Majesty, then.

And yet I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage.

He has his problems, our Barack, but self-confidence is not among them.

Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize… my accomplishments are slight.

Indeed.

However, it did get much better. Obama outlined a thoughtful view of how nations could work to maintain peace in a world where human beings, quite frankly, have much to fight about. He sensibly acknowledged that wars were sometimes necessary, and described what he considered to be two legitimate justifications for the use of force. First, simple self-defence:

I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.

Second, something very like the (in)famous “responsibility to protect”:

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.

Obama went on to affirm the importance of international law and multilateralism, even nodding briefly towards Canadian peacekeeping when he mentioned “those who return home from peacekeeping and training abroad to Oslo and Rome; to Ottawa and Sydney; to Dhaka and Kigali”. He talked about the need for robust sanctions against states that try to acquire nuclear weapons and against “those who violate international law by brutalizing their own people”. He promised to work with Russia towards nuclear disarmament.

It added up, if we ignore the pomposity at the beginning and a certain amount of platitudinous sermonising at the end, to a substantive vision of a multilateral world governed by agreed rules of conduct. The “international community”, in this world, would stand ready to use force to control the behaviour of states that behaved aggressively either within or beyond their borders. One interesting thing about this vision was how Canadian it sounded, or rather how much like the thrust of Canadian foreign policy in the idealistic final years of the 20th century. Those were the days when we loved the International Criminal Court, hated land mines, and let our humanitarian instincts lead our forces into missions of varying success in Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans. If our prime minister were still named Jean Chretien, Canada would no doubt be rushing to declare support for the ideas that Obama articulated in Oslo.

Stephen Harper may be more skeptical, which suits me just fine. Inaction doesn’t actually tear at my conscience when I read about soldiers using pro-democracy demonstrators for target practice in Guinea, for example. I don’t exactly feel indifferent, but I also don’t feel responsible for helping – any more than I would expect the Guineans to feel responsible if something similar happened in Canada. The idea that they might just seems odd, and frankly a bit intrusive.

I’m not sure how much things like that really tear at Obama’s conscience either. He barely mentioned Afghanistan in his speech, but when he did it was purely with reference to defence against terrorism. It would have been easy to work in a sentence about promoting democracy, prosperity or human rights in Afghanistan, but he simply didn’t bother. This omission dovetails perfectly with Obama’s recent speech at West Point, when he justified his “surge” of 30,000 troops by invoking “the security of the United States and the safety of the American people”. When push comes to shove, it seems, national security still rules the American roost. Let Obama’s humanitarian rhetoric foster no illusions.

I guess this brings me to the surge itself, and its implications for Canadian forces in Afghanistan. Thoughts coming soon.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mara Kardas-Nelson permalink*
    December 18, 2009 9:47 am

    Can we just forget the whole thing? Obama obviously doesn’t deserve the prize, made even more farcical upon his announcement of a troop increase in Afghanistan. It’s a joke and I’m embarrassed and angry and would just like to hide under the covers and forget that this annoying event ever took place.

    Let’s now use the fact that Obama was given a prize for “peace” in order to further shame him for going down in history as a war president…

    • corsullivan permalink*
      December 19, 2009 5:19 am

      I think I’ll just say that the words “Obama” and “farcical” go together rather well these days, and that I’m personally more amused than annoyed by his peace prize. But then, the poor man was lumbered with ridiculous expectations, and he was always doomed to look half-hearted and ineffectual in comparison to the almost messianic president some of his supporters seemed to be hoping for.

  2. December 15, 2009 10:29 am

    An interesting take on Obama’s speech. Thanks for this.

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