Shadow Government

Obama’s Nobel speech may be his least partisan speech ever

President Obama’s Nobel speech is a solid and commendable effort, at least a B if not a B+. There are lots of ways it could be refined to bring it to A level, but I think that on substantive grounds at least, this is one of the stronger speeches he has given. Perhaps because I am ...

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US President Barack Obama (R) holds his Nobel Peace Prize next to Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjoern Jagland, during the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony at the Oslo City Hall in Oslo on December 10, 2009. Nobel Peace Prize laureate, US President Barack Obama faces a tricky task of reconciling the revered honor with his decision just last week to send 30,000 troops to escalate the war in Afghanistan, a move which tripled the US force there since he took office. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama’s Nobel speech is a solid and commendable effort, at least a B if not a B+. There are lots of ways it could be refined to bring it to A level, but I think that on substantive grounds at least, this is one of the stronger speeches he has given.

Perhaps because I am mired in grading student papers, I can’t help but trip up over the myriad weaknesses. It is sprawling with repetition and lacking the discipline that a tight word-limit might have imposed. It correctly notes that he is dealing with a central dilemma — is war a necessary evil because war and preparing for war prevents greater evils? — but it awkwardly veers from one side to the other in the debate. It avoids truths when confronting them would be awkward, for instance confronting the faith-based foundation of Martin Luther King’s “faith in human progress,” or, for that matter, the faith-based foundation of pacifism itself.

But these weaknesses are mainly editorial and do not erase its many strengths, which are in the more important domain of substance and theme/frame. It avoids the simplistic dualities that characterize his usual rhetoric — the crafting of straw-man “false choices” that don’t take seriously the profound objections that the best critics raise about whatever policy he is proposing. It has to be his least partisan major speech ever, with the barest of cheap shots at his predecessor or partisan opponents. While not exactly brimming with humility, it does begin with a forthright admission that others deserve the award more than he does. And while it does not quite dedicate the peace prize to the men and women of the American armed forces (and the American people who supported them for decades), it does concede that these men and women have contributed to the goals of the peace prize. It is a more honest and balanced treatment of America’s role in the world than he has given in earlier foreign policy speeches.

Obama channeled his inner pragmatist for this speech and that was the right call. I suspect that this speech will not generate the irrational exuberance that greeted some of his earlier “big speeches on big topics,” but that is probably because there is less playing to a partisan crowd and a bit more sobriety about his responsibility as America’s commander in chief in a world filled with real enemies.

People wondered what would be the effect of the irony of him accepting the Nobel Peace Prize within days of ordering a major escalation in war. The effect, it appears, is that it drove him to give one of his better speeches.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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