President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace today. As he acknowledged at the start of his address, the seeming contradiction of a wartime President receiving a distinction such as this was on the minds of many in the world.
His address was an eloquent rationalization for war. I don’t know any other way to say it. To many, undoubtedly, it made sense. To many more–most of those in the world who suffer under the effects of war–it would seem gross and incomprehensible for him to say what he did say.
While you can easily access the full-text of the speech at the White House, let me share with you the heart of his rationalization, and the critical center of his thinking I find so unsatisfactory:
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.
What we must begin to consider is that “peace” is not merely the absence of war. While my concerns as a scholar are far more focused on what this means for everyday people living life on this planet–the freedom to be free from starvation as well as other forms of cultural, spiritual, political, and physical violence–it is equally true for the realm of big government diplomacy.
No, a “nonviolent movement” would not have halted Hitler’s armies in 1939. But a truly peaceful form of national and international diplomacy would have never allowed such a condition to materialize in the first place. If we live in a world where inequalities and inequities are not only allowed to exist but are indifferently and passively fostered and condoned, then we live in a world that will continue to see the worst in our species rise up.
Peace is not simple. Peace is not singular. But make no mistake about it: peace is both possible, realistic, and urgently needed.