President Obama gave a stirring speech this morning in Oslo, one laced with exhortations of international bodies like NATO, the U.N., and the League of Nations, devoted to collectively upholding right, preventing conflict, and sometimes, ultimately, fighting just wars.
And much of Obama's speech was a discourse on war--how it can be used to uphold peace, and how it is horrible and inglorious but, at times, necessary.
"I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people," Obama said. "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."
In other words, make no mistake: our president is not a nonviolent pacifist.
The term being thrown around today to describe Obama's perspective on war and international security is "realism," or as Ben Smith put it, "realism with a heart."
Realism is always a precarious term, as it implies a shared understanding of just what the realities of foreign policy are--and those realities, often, are disputed. But it's an accurate description of Obama's approach: "I face the world as it is" was perhaps the most significant line of his speech--and what term other than "realism" can describe that.
But the central thesis of Obama's speech was a rejection of the dichotomy between realism and idealism, outlined thusly:
In some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation's development. And within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists - a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values.
I reject this choice. 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. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests - nor the world's -are served by the denial of human aspirations.
If there is an Obama doctrine of foreign policy, up until this point it has been engagement. Today in Oslo, Obama fleshed out that doctrine to mean engagement with teeth, coupled with a strong international commitment. At the beginning of his speech, Obama praised the Marshall Plan, the U.N., and "mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, and restrict the most dangerous weapons."