Before You Listen to Obama Tonight, Read His Nobel Peace Prize Speech

It's easy to joke about the president's prize. But his 2009 speech on the role of American power included a surprising defense of the use of force.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Republican Representative Steve Stockman of Texas on Tuesday offered to change his vote and support a resolution to use force against Syria if Barack Obama is willing to give back his Nobel Peace Prize. It's not the first time the president's Nobel has been mentioned by people mocking his push for military strikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime. The anti-war president, calling for force! What a gas ...

But the joke may be on those who think our anti-war president has never made the case for using American military power, or read his speech on what he saw as its appropriate uses, delivered before the Nobel audience in Oslo, Norway, in December 2009. Because despite being the recipient of the prize, Obama introduced himself there as a war president, not an anti-war one:

... perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the commander-in-chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 42 other countries -- including Norway -- in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.
Still, we are at war, and I'm responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the costs of armed conflict -- filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.

He gave a brief outline of the development of international institutions that seek to humanize war and codify a global architecture to "restrict the most dangerous weapons":

... over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence ....

...with the advent of the nuclear age, it became clear to victor and vanquished alike that the world needed institutions to prevent another world war. And so, a quarter century after the United States Senate rejected the League of Nations -- an idea for which Woodrow Wilson received this prize -- America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace: a Marshall Plan and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, restrict the most dangerous weapons.

He recognized the emergence of a new type of warfare that's very much like the sort we now see in Syria -- "wars within nations" that trap "civilians in unending chaos" inside "failed states" or on account of "insurgencies":

And yet, a decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats.  The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe.  Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.
Moreover, wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations.  The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states -- all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos.  In today's wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, children scarred.

He stood up for the use of force:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified....

To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

And not just any force -- American force:

I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause.  And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.
But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions -- not just treaties and declarations -- that brought stability to a post-World War II world.  Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this:  The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. 

He also raised a connection that's worth thinking about as we consider why he has been so ready to risk everything on a measure that the public and members of Congress oppose, in the service of upholding an international norm. The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Dunant, the man who helped set in motion the process that led to the global norm against chemical weapons use in 1925.

Even as we make difficult decisions about going to war, we must also think clearly about how we fight it. The Nobel Committee recognized this truth in awarding its first prize for peace to Henry Dunant -- the founder of the Red Cross, and a driving force behind the Geneva Conventions.
Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. 

And Obama called for pressure to be brought to bear on those who violate the laws of war, in words that have a familiar ring to them from the last week -- "the words of the international community must mean something":

... in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior -- for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price.  Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.

The whole speech is worth a read again, all these years later.