Much has been said and written about the President’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. It was, to say the least, unexpected. Given the expressions on many of the Nobel Prize Committee’s faces it was totally unexpected by them as well, and in many of its aspects likely unwelcome. The President deserves credit for addressing many of the issues he addressed in this particular setting, on this occasion. It was, in its way, brilliant.
Watching the speech and reading the transcript, there is much to absorb and consider. The President’s recognition of evil in the world is heartening. His reminder to all that America played the critical, indispensible role in securing democracy and his defense of just conflict ring true. While some of the President’s historical context is questionable, that is nothing more than nit picking.
It was good to hear the President speak aggressively to the role of democracy in stabilizing the post war world. It was good to hear him point out that millions have been lifted from oppression and poverty by those ideals.
It was also good to hear him allude to the weakness frequently demonstrated by our partners in securing both themselves and others. I believe I heard a message to our European partners regarding their inherent pacifism and to Iran about the consequences of their actions. The address, scolding the unjustness of knee jerk anti-Americanism is both appropriate and necessary.
The President seemed to be defining a hybrid approach that includes aspects of all the currently dominant schools of foreign policy thinking. Critically, he spoke of consequences and the need for the international community to define and apply them. He, elegantly, castigated the international community for their inaction in Burma, the Congo and the Sudan. The message being that rhetoric associated with a failure of will is a guarantee of empirical failure. The President was clear that a failure to actually address these situations is a demonstration of the inherent and ongoing weakness of current international institutions and their moral grounding. He is right!
The President also, thankfully, addressed religious extremism and rejected the prevalent justifications for that extremism.
There is much more that can be said about the specifics of the speech; mainly supportive, in come cases critical. There are aspects that seem inconsistent and contradictory and yet analysis of those inconsistencies ignores the salient context and change of tone.
The questions are much more fundamental than, for instance, the President recognizing evil and extremism and yet contending that “we’re all basically seeking the same things” or contending that “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”. Clearly evil and extremism are not seeking what the majority seeks and not all religious interpretation is willing to apply the golden rule, but I digress.
The President’s tendency to apologize for America’s role in the world was absent. The criticism of Iraq was absent as he simply ignored it other than a general reference to being involved in two wars. He did not blame the prior administration.
This speech was so far removed from the President’s rhetoric of the past two years. One must ask; has the experience of office, the gravity of that office and the information that comes to a President served to lubricate an epiphany fueled by reality or simply to the perceived need for political triangulation?
Has the President actually come to believe all that he discussed during the speech? Does this speech represent a major evolution of the President’s thinking? Has the frequently valid criticism, broken through and broadened the President’s view to a recognition of the harsh realities that exist in world?
While it is not at all difficult to applaud a majority of this speech, actions will be the only basis for judging it fully. We must wait to see if members of his senior staff and cabinet officers bend to what the President has said both implicitly and explicitly. Will our foreign policy bureaucracy line up with the President? Will the challenge to other nations to act consistently to their rhetorical values continue? Will nations be called out? Will the U.S., once again, lead the way to establishing the consequences the President spoke of? And critically, will the President be prepared to act unilaterally and with courage where justified?
In short, will the walk, bear witness to the talk?