Daniel W. Drezner

The international relations theories behind Obama’s Nobel speech

Oh, professors of introductory international relations classes everywhere are thanking their maker for Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (well, except those in Steve Walt‘s classes).  It’s a gift to anyone who needs to come up with a final exam question at this stage of the semester.  Pick a paradigm, and you can find a sliver of ...

Oh, professors of introductory international relations classes everywhere are thanking their maker for Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (well, except those in Steve Walt's classes).  It's a gift to anyone who needs to come up with a final exam question at this stage of the semester.  Pick a paradigm, and you can find a sliver of the speech dedicated to its theoretical propositions. 

I'm sure, for example, that the realists in the crowd will like this section:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that 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.

Oh, professors of introductory international relations classes everywhere are thanking their maker for Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (well, except those in Steve Walt‘s classes).  It’s a gift to anyone who needs to come up with a final exam question at this stage of the semester.  Pick a paradigm, and you can find a sliver of the speech dedicated to its theoretical propositions. 

I’m sure, for example, that the realists in the crowd will like this section:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that 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.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago — "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naive — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent 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.

Side note:  for those who complain that Barack Obama does not speak uncomfortable truths, read over that section again and realize that he’s saying this directly to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.   

So, a contest for readers:  pore over the speech and look for evidence suggesting Obama favors the following approaches:

  • Neoliberal institutionalism
  • Social construcivism
  • Democratic peace theory
  • Feminist IR theory (I think it’s there, but you have to squint)
  • Human security

It’s easy… and fun!!

[Doesn’t this imply that the speech was logically contradictory?–ed.  No, it implies that the world is a hell of a lot more complex than any of these theoretical approaches.  Alas, knowing when to apply each of these worldviews is more art than science.]

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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