No Comment — December 15, 2009, 1:01 pm

A Noble Speech

I was in Europe meeting with a crowd of academics and NATO officers when Barack Obama delivered his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo. I had the impression that his speech was followed closely and received very well, but also that there was some anxiety over whether Obama’s conduct would match his words. That was particularly the case among those committed to the North Atlantic alliance—a military organization that has been the cornerstone of U.S. security efforts since the conclusion of World War II, and which today seems struggling for a purpose. Obama did not articulate a purpose for the alliance in his speech—it would indeed have been the wrong place and time for such a step—but he did begin to lay the foundations for that.

In the fantasy world of the American right, Europe is a zoo of the frivolous and feckless, filled with naïve pacifism and disrespect for America. In the real world, Europe cannot be profiled simply, but it has a complicated love-hate relationship with America and substantial concerns about its own security in a transformed threat environment. Europeans long for the America they came to love at the close of World War II, a nation prepared to act selflessly and in a principled way, and a nation that understood its position as a leader among nations it respected. They long for an Atlantic ally that is committed to lead and not act alone in half-baked military escapades. That is the Europe that picked Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize, out of a hope and expectation that he would forge renewed bonds of common purpose in seeking security—not because of any actual accomplishments in peace-making.

In America, Obama’s speech gained praise particularly from conservatives (aside of course, from the Cheneys). They seem genuinely surprised by Obama’s embrace of the use of force. In this perhaps the conservative pundits have slowly been freed from their own myth that Democrats are the party of flower children. In fact, of course, only a generation earlier, Republicans dismissed the “Democrat wars” and linked the party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy to World War II, the Korean conflict, and Vietnam. But the vision of military might deployed as a great sword of democracy is consummately liberal in the political tradition of the English-speaking world. It is the vision of John Stuart Mill, for instance. The Obama speech is infused with that spirit, and also with the pragmatism of Max Weber, another liberal in a state that had tasted the bitterness of defeat, who struggled to define the imperative of political engagement. And it had hints of FDR, Wilson, and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as a quotation from John F. Kennedy, and threads from Obama’s Republican predecessors, such as Reagan and George W. Bush.

Obama is wielding these ideas and images in an effort to forge a new political consensus in America; he is consciously tipping his hat to the Republicans. While the past eight years present a point of confusion, this is precisely what a political leader should do. National security should be a point for consensus building. For the last decade it was instead conceived as a perfect arena for the partisan wedge, with destructive consequences.

The Obama speech is an impressive expedition into the idea of “just war” and the need for laws of war. “The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations—total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred.”

It dwells at length on the purpose and needs for these rules, and Obama’s ringing embrace of them could well be the speech’s highpoint:

To begin with, I believe that all nations– strong and weak alike– must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I– like any head of state– reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates– and weakens– those who don’t… America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention– no matter how justified…

Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.

I suspected when the award was first announced that this was the commitment that the Nobel Committee hoped Obama would deliver—a reaffirmation of American commitment to principle in the way it waged war. I suspect in the future Obama’s speech may be seen as a key step in the reanimation of the Atlantic Alliance.

But observers in America also have reason to challenge the depth and sincerity of Obama’s commitment. Fundamental to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, largely the product of an American vision of the humanitarian limits on war-making, is the concept that government officials who direct or have responsibility for grave breaches may not assert notions of domestic law immunity to shield themselves from accountability. When officials of Obama’s Justice Department file briefs in federal courts around the country asserting that the authors of policies of torture and the architects of secret prisons where torture was practiced are immune from accountability in court due to “extraordinary circumstances,” this makes a mockery of Obama’s pledge. When the Joint Special Operations Command is authorized to operate secret facilities at which prisoners are held and abused, free from the scrutiny of the Red Cross—as it now does at Guantanamo and Bagram—and when prisoners die under mysterious circumstances that strongly suggest homicide, and Obama stands by a pathetic excuse of a cover-up–his commitment to uphold Geneva can fairly be called into question. When senior officials responsible for detainee issues, whose own commitment to the Geneva principles is beyond question, suddenly resign without a coherent explanation, my worries grow.

Obama’s speech was powerful and persuasive. But I cannot free myself from doubts about Obama’s commitment. The past eight years impose on all of us a heavy moral burden. It requires us to admit and expose the unpleasant truth that may lie beneath the beautiful words.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chance that a teenager in a New York City jail has a history of traumatic brain injury:

1 in 2

Altruistic children tend to be healthier but from poorer families.

The prosecution told the jury that the officer, Philip Brailsford, was a “killer” for forcing Shaver, who was unarmed and intoxicated, into the hallway and then shooting him as he crawled on the floor crying and asking not to be shot.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today