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Obama in Oslo, 10 December
Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize

Published 12 December 2009

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary,
December 10, 2009

THE PRESIDENT: Your Majesties, Your Royal
Highnesses, distinguished members of the
Norwegian Nobel Committee, citizens of America, and citizens of the world:

I receive this honor with deep gratitude and
great humility. It is an award that speaks to
our highest aspirations — that for all the
cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not
mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and
can bend history in the direction of justice.

And yet I would be remiss if I did not
acknowledge the considerable controversy that
your generous decision has
generated. (Laughter.) In part, this is because
I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my
labors on the world stage. Compared to some of
the giants of history who’ve received this prize
— Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela —
my accomplishments are slight. And then there
are the men and women around the world who have
been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice;
those who toil in humanitarian organizations to
relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions
whose quiet acts of courage and compassion
inspire even the most hardened cynics. I cannot
argue with those who find these men and women —
some known, some obscure to all but those they
help — to be far more deserving of this honor than I.

But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding
my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am
the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a
nation in the midst of two wars. One of these
wars is winding down. The other is a conflict
that America did not seek; one in which we are
joined by 42 other countries — including Norway — in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.

Still, we are at war, and I’m responsible for the
deployment of thousands of young Americans to
battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and
some will be killed. And so I come here with an
acute sense of the costs of armed conflict —
filled with difficult questions about the
relationship between war and peace, and our
effort to replace one with the other.

Now these questions are not new. War, in one
form or another, appeared with the first man. At
the dawn of history, its morality was not
questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or
disease — the manner in which tribes and then
civilizations sought power and settled their differences.

And over time, as codes of law sought to control
violence within groups, so did philosophers and
clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the
destructive power of war. The concept of a "just
war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified
only when certain conditions were met: if it is
waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the
force used is proportional; and if, whenever
possible, civilians are spared from violence.

Of course, we know that for most of history, this
concept of "just war" was rarely observed. 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. In the
span of 30 years, such carnage would twice engulf
this continent. And while it’s hard to conceive
of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third
Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a
conflict in which the total number of civilians
who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished.

In the wake of such destruction, and with the
advent of the nuclear age, it became clear to
victor and vanquished alike that the world needed
institutions to prevent another world war. And
so, a quarter century after the United States
Senate rejected the League of Nations — an idea
for which Woodrow Wilson received this prize —
America led the world in constructing an
architecture to keep the peace: a Marshall Plan
and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the
waging of war, treaties to protect human rights,
prevent genocide, restrict the most dangerous weapons.

In many ways, these efforts succeeded. Yes,
terrible wars have been fought, and atrocities
committed. But there has been no Third World
War. The Cold War ended with jubilant crowds
dismantling a wall. Commerce has stitched much
of the world together. Billions have been lifted
from poverty. The ideals of liberty and
self-determination, equality and the rule of law
have haltingly advanced. We are the heirs of the
fortitude and foresight of generations past, and
it is a legacy for which my own country is rightfully proud.

And yet, a decade into a new century, this old
architecture is buckling under the weight of new
threats. The world may no longer shudder at the
prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers,
but proliferation may increase the risk of
catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic,
but modern technology allows a few small men with
outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.

Moreover, wars between nations have increasingly
given way to wars within nations. The resurgence
of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of
secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed
states — all these things have increasingly
trapped civilians in unending chaos. In today’s
wars, many more civilians are killed than
soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown,
economies are wrecked, civil societies torn
asunder, refugees amassed, children scarred.

I do not bring with me today a definitive
solution to the problems of war. What I do know
is that meeting these challenges will require the
same vision, hard work, and persistence of those
men and women who acted so boldly decades
ago. And it will require us to think in new ways
about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard
truth: 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 Jr. 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 work, I am living testimony to the moral
force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing
weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — 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 non-violent movement could
not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations
cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down
their arms. To say that force may sometimes be
necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a
recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point, I begin with this point
because in many countries there is a deep
ambivalence about military action today, no
matter what the cause. And at times, this is
joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the
world’s sole military superpower.

But the world must remember that it was not
simply international institutions — not just
treaties and declarations — that brought
stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever
mistakes we have made, the plain fact is
this: The United States of America has helped
underwrite global security for more than six
decades with the blood of our citizens and the
strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice
of our men and women in uniform has promoted
peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and
enabled democracy to take hold in places like the
Balkans. We have borne this burden not because
we seek to impose our will. We have done so out
of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a
better future for our children and grandchildren,
and we believe that their lives will be better if
others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to
play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth
must coexist with another — that no matter how
justified, war promises human tragedy. The
soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory,
expressing devotion to country, to cause, to
comrades in arms. But war itself is never
glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two
seemingly inreconcilable truths — that war is
sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an
expression of human folly. Concretely, we must
direct our effort to the task that President
Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he
said, "on a more practical, more attainable
peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human
nature but on a gradual evolution in human
institutions." A gradual evolution of human institutions.

What might this evolution look like? What might these practical steps be?

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,
international standards, strengthens those who
do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.

The world rallied around America after the 9/11
attacks, and continues to support our efforts in
Afghanistan, because of the horror of those
senseless attacks and the recognized principle of
self-defense. Likewise, the world recognized the
need to confront Saddam Hussein when he invaded
Kuwait — a consensus that sent a clear message
to all about the cost of aggression.

Furthermore, America — in fact, no nation — can
insist that others follow the rules of the road
if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when
we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and
undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.

And this becomes particularly important when the
purpose of military action extends beyond
self-defense or the defense of one nation against
an aggressor. More and more, we all confront
difficult questions about how to prevent the
slaughter of civilians by their own government,
or to stop a civil war whose violence and
suffering can engulf an entire region.

I believe that force can be justified on
humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans,
or in other places that have been scarred by
war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can
lead to more costly intervention later. That’s
why all responsible nations must embrace the role
that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.

America’s commitment to global security will
never waver. But in a world in which threats are
more diffuse, and missions more complex, America
cannot act alone. America alone cannot secure
the peace. This is true in Afghanistan. This is
true in failed states like Somalia, where
terrorism and piracy is joined by famine and
human suffering. And sadly, it will continue to
be true in unstable regions for years to come.

The leaders and soldiers of NATO countries, and
other friends and allies, demonstrate this truth
through the capacity and courage they’ve shown in
Afghanistan. But in many countries, there is a
disconnect between the efforts of those who serve
and the ambivalence of the broader public. I
understand why war is not popular, but I also
know this: The belief that peace is desirable is
rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires
responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That’s
why NATO continues to be indispensable. That’s
why we must strengthen U.N. and regional
peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few
countries. That’s why we honor those who return
home from peacekeeping and training abroad to
Oslo and Rome; to Ottawa and Sydney; to Dhaka and
Kigali — we honor them not as makers of war, but
of wagers — but as wagers of peace.

Let me make one final point about the use of
force. Even as we make difficult decisions about
going to war, we must also think clearly about
how we fight it. The Nobel Committee recognized
this truth in awarding its first prize for peace
to Henry Dunant — the founder of the Red Cross,
and a driving force behind the Geneva Conventions.

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 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. (Applause.) And we honor — we honor
those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.

I have spoken at some length to the question that
must weigh on our minds and our hearts as we
choose to wage war. But let me now turn to our
effort to avoid such tragic choices, and speak of
three ways that we can build a just and lasting peace.

First, in dealing with those nations that break
rules and laws, I believe that we must develop
alternatives to violence that are tough enough to
actually change behavior — for if we want a
lasting peace, then the words of the
international community must mean
something. Those regimes that break the rules
must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a
real price. Intransigence must be met with
increased pressure — and such pressure exists
only when the world stands together as one.

One urgent example is the effort to prevent the
spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world
without them. In the middle of the last century,
nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose
bargain is clear: All will have access to
peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear
weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear
weapons will work towards disarmament. I am
committed to upholding this treaty. It is a
centerpiece of my foreign policy. And I’m
working with President Medvedev to reduce America
and Russia’s nuclear stockpiles.

But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist
that nations like Iran and North Korea do not
game the system. Those who claim to respect
international law cannot avert their eyes when
those laws are flouted. Those who care for their
own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms
race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who
seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.

The same principle applies to those who violate
international laws by brutalizing their own
people. When there is genocide in Darfur,
systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma —
there must be consequences. Yes, there will be
engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy — but
there must be consequences when those things
fail. And the closer we stand together, the less
likely we will be faced with the choice between
armed intervention and complicity in oppression.

This brings me to a second point — the nature of
the peace that we seek. For peace is not merely
the absence of visible conflict. Only a just
peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of
every individual can truly be lasting.

It was this insight that drove drafters of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the
Second World War. In the wake of devastation,
they recognized that if human rights are not
protected, peace is a hollow promise.

And yet too often, these words are ignored. For
some countries, the failure to uphold human
rights is excused by the false suggestion that
these are somehow Western principles, foreign to
local cultures or stages of a nation’s
development. And within America, there has long
been a tension between those who describe
themselves as realists or idealists — a tension
that suggests a stark choice between the narrow
pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to
impose our values around the world.

I reject these choices. I believe that peace is
unstable where citizens are denied the right to
speak freely or worship as they please; choose
their own leaders or assemble without
fear. Pent-up grievances fester, and the
suppression of tribal and religious identity can
lead to violence. We also know that the opposite
is true. Only when Europe became free did it
finally find peace. America has never fought a
war against a democracy, and our closest friends
are governments that protect the rights of their
citizens. No matter how callously defined,
neither America’s interests — nor the world’s —
are served by the denial of human aspirations.

So even as we respect the unique culture and
traditions of different countries, America will
always be a voice for those aspirations that are
universal. We will bear witness to the quiet
dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to
the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots
in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of
thousands who have marched silently through the
streets of Iran. It is telling that the leaders
of these governments fear the aspirations of
their own people more than the power of any other
nation. And it is the responsibility of all free
people and free nations to make clear that these
movements — these movements of hope and history — they have us on their side.

Let me also say this: The promotion of human
rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At
times, it must be coupled with painstaking
diplomacy. I know that engagement with
repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of
indignation. But I also know that sanctions
without outreach — condemnation without
discussion — can carry forward only a crippling
status quo. No repressive regime can move down a
new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors,
Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable —
and yet it surely helped set China on a path
where millions of its citizens have been lifted
from poverty and connected to open
societies. Pope John Paul’s engagement with
Poland created space not just for the Catholic
Church, but for labor leaders like Lech
Walesa. Ronald Reagan’s efforts on arms control
and embrace of perestroika not only improved
relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered
dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. There’s no
simple formula here. But we must try as best we
can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure
and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.

Third, a just peace includes not only civil and
political rights — it must encompass economic
security and opportunity. For true peace is not
just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.

It is undoubtedly true that development rarely
takes root without security; it is also true that
security does not exist where human beings do not
have access to enough food, or clean water, or
the medicine and shelter they need to
survive. It does not exist where children can’t
aspire to a decent education or a job that
supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.

And that’s why helping farmers feed their own
people — or nations educate their children and
care for the sick — is not mere charity. It’s
also why the world must come together to confront
climate change. There is little scientific
dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more
drought, more famine, more mass displacement —
all of which will fuel more conflict for
decades. For this reason, it is not merely
scientists and environmental activists who call
for swift and forceful action — it’s military
leaders in my own country and others who
understand our common security hangs in the balance.

Agreements among nations. Strong
institutions. Support for human
rights. Investments in development. All these
are vital ingredients in bringing about the
evolution that President Kennedy spoke
about. And yet, I do not believe that we will
have the will, the determination, the staying
power, to complete this work without something
more — and that’s the continued expansion of our
moral imagination; an insistence that there’s
something irreducible that we all share.

As the world grows smaller, you might think it
would be easier for human beings to recognize how
similar we are; to understand that we’re all
basically seeking the same things; that we all
hope for the chance to live out our lives with
some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.

And yet somehow, given the dizzying pace of
globalization, the cultural leveling of
modernity, it perhaps comes as no surprise that
people fear the loss of what they cherish in
their particular identities — their race, their
tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their
religion. In some places, this fear has led to
conflict. At times, it even feels like we’re
moving backwards. We see it in the Middle East,
as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to
harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.

And most dangerously, we see it in the way that
religion is used to justify the murder of
innocents by those who have distorted and defiled
the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my
country from Afghanistan. These extremists are
not the first to kill in the name of God; the
cruelties of the Crusades are amply
recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War
can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe
that you are carrying out divine will, then there
is no need for restraint — no need to spare the
pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross
worker, or even a person of one’s own
faith. Such a warped view of religion is not
just incompatible with the concept of peace, but
I believe it’s incompatible with the very purpose
of faith — for the one rule that lies at the
heart of every major religion is that we do unto
others as we would have them do unto us.

Adhering to this law of love has always been the
core struggle of human nature. For 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
of 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 fundamental faith in human
progress — that 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’s 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 condition makes him
morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal
’oughtness’ that forever confronts him."

Let us reach for the world that ought to be —
that spark of the divine that still stirs within
each of our souls. (Applause.)

Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the
world as it is, a soldier sees he’s outgunned,
but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere
today, in this world, a young protestor awaits
the brutality of her government, but has the
courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother
facing punishing poverty still takes the time to
teach her child, scrapes together what few coins
she has to send that child to school — because
she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child’s dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge
that oppression will always be with us, and still
strive for justice. We can admit the
intractability of depravation, and still strive
for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that
there will be war, and still strive for
peace. We can do that — for that is the story
of human progress; that’s the hope of all the
world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)


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