Stephen M. Walt

Was Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech really “realist?”

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large; I contain multitudes).” –Walt Whitman Readers here know that I recommended that we not pay much attention to Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, mostly because what mattered was not what he said — we all know by now that he’s eloquent ...

US President Barack Obama (R) and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the Torch Parade from the Grand Hotel balcony in Oslo on December 10, 2009. Obama on December 10 accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, uncomfortably acknowledging his role as a leader at war while insisting that conflict can be morally justified. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large; I contain multitudes).” –Walt Whitman

Readers here know that I recommended that we not pay much attention to Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, mostly because what mattered was not what he said — we all know by now that he’s eloquent on such occasions — but what he did.

Needless to say, the commentariat ignored this advice, with prominent pundits like Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, and George Packer praising Obama’s remarks for his Niebuhrian “Christian Realism.” (In his New Yorker comment on the speech, Packer uses variations on the word “realism” four different times.) So having originally decided to ignore it, I decided I’d better go back and read it again (see Whitman quotation above).

There’s no question that realists can find much to agree with in the speech.  Instead of promising a “war to end all wars,” he warned his listeners that “we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” He also acknowledged that the use of force is sometimes “not only necessary but morally justified” and made it clear that his role as head of state is first and foremost “to protect and defend” the United States. Why? Because he must “face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” Hard to think of a more “realist” notion than that. And surely realists would agree that his position is “a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.”

That said, other aspects of the speech were less consistent with realist thinking as well as less convincing in themselves. He suggested that the world “needed institutions to prevent another world war,” even though the case that institutions can or have performed that role is weak. Institutions are useful tools, to be sure, and one can argue that the United Nations has performed valuable peace-keeping roles in a number of places, but institutions cannot prevent great powers from pursuing their interests and did relatively little to prevent another world war.

Instead, as Obama himself acknowledged, what has kept peace among the great powers over the past sixty years is mostly power. Here Obama gave full credit to the United States, saying that it “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades.” Most realists would agree — but only up to a point. As Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall show in their excellent new book, America’s Cold War, the United States did play a positive role in stabilizing Europe after World War II and in containing possible Soviet expansion in that region afterwards. But they also show that America’s role in Indochina, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East was far more destructive, even though the U.S. leaders who conducted these policies undoubtedly thought they are serving a larger moral purpose as well.

Furthermore, despite his wise remarks about the human capacity for error, the limits of reason, and the like, it was still a speech that invoked the threat of “evil” to justify the use of force, and applied an implicit double standard to the conduct of the United States, its friends, and other powerful states.   

This contradiction was most evident in his discussion of the need for “certain rules of conduct” regarding the use of force, and his call to “develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior.” In particular, he wants to sanction “regimes that break the rules” and declared they “must be held accountable — sanctions must exact a real price.” He went on to say “those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flauted.”

But although Obama said that “all nations — strong and weak alike — must adhere to standards that govern the use of force,” he clearly didn’t mean it.   He was hardly endorsing international sanctions against the United States when it breaks existing “rules of conduct,” as it did when it invaded Iraq in 2003, fired cruise missiles into Sudan in 1998, or engages in targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists (and sometimes kills innocent civilians in the bargain) today. Surely he was not proposing to sanction Israel for its refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty or for its illegal colonization of the West Bank. Nor do I think he was suggesting that the international community hold China “accountable” for its absorption of Tibet.

One could argue that this part of the speech was eminently “realist” too — the strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must. And despite his reminder that “evil exists,” Obama acknowledged the possibility that fear of change and other sources of insecurity can lead to extreme actions, and that no one is immune to that temptation. “For we are fallible,” he said, “We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptation of pride and power, and sometimes evil.”

That passage was perhaps the most genuinely “realist” element in the speech. Like most liberals, Americans are prone to demonizing their supposedly “evil” adversaries and find it hard to admit that sometimes our own behavior isn’t so very different. It’s not just that other states have a “reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower,” as Obama put it, the real problem is that some of that suspicion is warranted.   Realists understand the moral distinctions can and should be drawn, but they also recognize that much harm is done not with openly evil intent, but rather through a combination of fear, stupidity, sloth, greed and narrow-mindedness. Insecurity is hardwired into the anarchic international system, and with that insecurity comes suspicion, competition, and the omnipresent possibility that smart and well-intentioned people will still make big mistakes. When great power is involved, even seemingly small acts of corruption or malfeasance can have horrific consequences.

In the end, that is why I still think we should pay less attention to what he said and focus on what he and his advisors do. In his first year in office, President Obama has made two critical decisions involving matters of war, peace and justice. The first is his decision to abandon the admirable principles he set forth in his Cairo speech in June, to tacitly accept the continued expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements, and to collude in a well-orchestrated assault on the Goldstone Report on war crimes in Gaza.  The result will be to perpetuate precisely the sort of injustice that gives rise to very violence he deplored in his speech. The second is his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan — sending 17,000 troops last spring and 30,000 more last month — despite the continued absence of a compelling rationale or coherent strategy for success.

From Day One, Obama has shown that he is a thoughtful and intelligent leader who takes his responsibilities seriously and weighs decisions carefully. But in the end, what matters is not how long or hard he thinks or how well he talks. What matters is whether he makes the right decisions. And by that criterion, he’s 0 for 2.


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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