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The Best Speech of Obama’s Presidency

At Oslo, in circumstances verging on a speechwriter’s nightmare, Barack Obama gave by far the best address of his presidency. A thoughtful meditation on war, peace, and human nature, the speech also represents a promising reorientation of his administration’s foreign policy. The question now is whether he will adjust his policies to match his words.

What struck me most favorably about the speech was Obama’s moral realism--about the world, and about his own role within it. Forcefully, but with dignity and restraint, he distinguished his responsibilities from those of King and Gandhi, who led nonviolently as private citizens. “Evil does exist in the world,” he declared, and as long as it does, war is a moral possibility, sometimes a moral necessity. And not only to defeat evil; “the instruments of war,” he said, “do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”

The president spoke out unapologetically in defense of America’s role as a peacemaker and peacekeeper: “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.”

Obama directly confronted global public skepticism--about America’s role and about war itself. “I understand why war is not popular,” he said. “But I also know this: the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.”

He went on to describe the kind of peace America seeks: “Peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based upon 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.”

But all too often, Obama continued, their principles are ignored. In some countries, leaders falsely suggest that human rights are merely aspects of the West, foreign to and imposed on non-Western cultures. In America, realists and idealists contend endlessly against one another.

“I reject this choice,” the president declared. “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.” These truths have practical implications for the conduct of American foreign policy. “Even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries,” Obama promised, “America will be a voice for those aspirations that are universal.”

The question is how best to do this. The president defended his policy of engaging repressive regimes, which he characterized as painstaking diplomacy. But up to now, I believe (and I am far from alone) that his administration has been at best timid and laggard in giving voice to the aspirations of suppressed peoples struggling for the political rights he defends as fundamental. If his Oslo speech is the harbinger of a new and better balance between private engagement and public firmness, and between carrots and sticks, the future of his foreign policy looks bright.