A Niebuhrian on the World Stage

Three years ago today, President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize. The awkward contexts of 2009 that accompanied, if not overshadowed, the award and his Nobel address are worth recalling. The Nobel Committee had announced “the world’s most prestigious prize” just eight months into the president’s first term of office in spite of his admittedly “slight” accomplishments, to use his words. Then, a few months later, the Nobel Committee conferred the Peace Prize only days after Obama announced he was escalating the war in Afghanistan, ordering a surge of 20,000 additional troops. Given such ironies, it’s easy now to overlook this early chapter in Obama’s tenure. That, however, would be a mistake.

President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize address conveyed his moral vision of international affairs and laid the groundwork for the foreign policy successes of his first term. His foreign policy ethic has drawn from several moral languages, all of which he articulated clearly in Oslo. By “moral languages,” I mean the principles and vocabularies of different religious, ethical, and political traditions—in this case, “just war,” American exceptionalism, and Christian realism. Where these moral languages have converged or reinforced one another, they provided a foundation for Obama’s achievements. Where they conflict, however, one sees cracks that have begun to form. To extend his foreign policy record and resolve the intransigent problems spilling over into his second term will require reconciling, if not choosing among, Obama’s different moral vocabularies.

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