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In Oslo, Obama Both Idealist and Realist

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
December 10, 2009

In Oslo, Obama Both Idealist and Realist - in-oslo-obama-both-idealist-and-realist

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It is not easy for a political figure leading his country at a time of two wars to speak at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, but President Barack Obama managed to finesse both the irony and the tension. His mantra might have been "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum" (if you want peace, prepare for war), a principle that has guided leaders since ancient Rome.

The president suggested that war was, on occasion, necessary, citing not just several of the principles of a just war, but arguing correctly that nonviolence was feckless in the face of those such as Nazi Germany or al-Qaeda who recognize no limits in what they do or how they do it.

The president actually went beyond just war theory, which was designed to limit both when force is used and how it is employed. He associated himself and the United States with the notion that it is sometimes legitimate to use force for purposes other than self-defense, such as in the case of genocide.

The speech, though, was about more than war and peace. Here the president spoke to two audiences, one international and the other domestic. Obama singled out Iran's nuclear program, calling on the world community to support tough sanctions that "exact a real price." (Left unsaid was whether military force might be warranted if sanctions failed to curb Iran's ambitions.) He also reminded his audience that peace doesn't just come about, but that it is the result of extraordinary effort and sacrifice by the United States more than anyone else. And he returned to a theme of his Cairo address, making clear that those who carry out terror in the name of Islam defile their own religion.

The president also took on those at home who criticize his administration's willingness to engage tyrants, reminding listeners that this is little different from the successful policies conducted by two of his Republican predecessors, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who engaged an authoritarian China and Russia. He also went to some lengths to reassure those who have attacked him for abandoning human rights, siding at least rhetorically with opponents of the regimes in Iran, Burma, and Zimbabwe.

The president sought to portray himself in Oslo as both a realist and an idealist. To be sure, he argued not just for peace but for justice as well. But make no mistake about it: this was a supremely realistic statement about the presence of evil in the world, the limitations of international institutions, the need to talk to tyrants, and the unavoidability of war. This may have been a Nobel Peace Prize speech, but the U.S. president is no pacifist.

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