Obama in Oslo

by Michael Crowley | December 10, 2009

I agree with Chait and, to offer him some fancy synonyms, think this may have been the deepest and most elegaic speech of Obama's presidency. But what a strange one it was. Obama is a man trapped amongst the contradictions created by America's awkward place in the post-Bush world. Last week, Obama's address on Afghanistan both escalated and promised an end to the war there. Today, Obama opened his Nobel Peace Price acceptance speech with a long disquisition on the nature of war and its necessity--complete with a brief survey of "just war" theory. (He even threw in a passage about the necessary role of coercion against states like Iran and North Korea that mess around with nuclear weapons.) I suppose it was the honest way to take such a prize at a time when America has about 200,000 soldiers occupying foreign countries. But it was something of a surreal exercise.

The rest of Obama's speech was movingly inspirational. Having conceded that war can't be wished away, Obama laid out a vision of human nature and progress that is fundamental to his view of the world:

Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature.  We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us. 

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected.  We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place.  The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. 

For if we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what is best about humanity.  We lose our sense of possibility.  We lose our moral compass. 

Like generations have before us, we must reject that future.  As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago, “I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.  I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”

Two years ago, Obama was fighting against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. She played the role of the hardened cynic, who believed change came incrementally, through grueling work against dishonest and vicious enemies. Obama focused on the possibility of transformative change and the highest potential of the human spirit. It was an effective campaign persona, but I think it really is how Obama thinks about the world. Even if the world doesn't often reward his vision in kind.

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