Thursday, 10 December 2009


Text of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize speech

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. 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 have 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 of 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 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 43 other countries —
including Norway — in an effort to defend ourselves and all
nations from further attacks.

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

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.

Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence
within groups, so did philosophers, 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 it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as
a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is
proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are
spared from violence.

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 is 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 and 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, 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.

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 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 and 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

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that 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

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King
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's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of
non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing
passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and

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 nonviolent movement could not
have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince
al-Qaidas leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force
is sometimes 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 because in many countries there is a
deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter the
cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of
America, the worlds sole military superpower.

Yet 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 other
people's children and grandchildren can live in freedom and

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 soldiers courage and sacrifice is full of
glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and 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
irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary,
and war is at some level 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."

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
strengthens those who do, and isolates — and weakens —
those who dont.

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 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.

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 is 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. 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 have 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 is why NATO continues to be
indispensable. That is why we must strengthen U.N. and
regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few
countries. That is 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 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 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 have spoken to the questions that must weigh on our minds
and our hearts as we choose to wage war. But let me turn
now 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 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
toward disarmament. I am committed to upholding this
treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy. And I am
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

The same principle applies to those who violate
international law by brutalizing their own people. When
there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo or
repression in Burma — there must be consequences. 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 upon the inherent
rights and dignity of every individual can truly be

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 all too often, these words are ignored. In some
countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by
the false suggestion that these are 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.

I reject this choice. 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 worlds — 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 to these movements that hope and
history are 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 — and condemnation without discussion — can carry
forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can
move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open

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 is 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 they need to survive. It
does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent
education or a job that supports a family. The absence of
hope can rot a society from within.

And that is why helping farmers feed their own people — or
nations educate their children and care for the sick — is
not mere charity. It is 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, famine and mass displacement that will fuel more
conflict for decades. For this reason, it is not merely
scientists and activists who call for swift and forceful
action — it is military leaders in my country and others
who understand that our common security hangs in the

Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for
human rights. Investments in development. All of 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, or the staying power, to
complete this work without something more — and that is the
continued expansion of our moral imagination, an insistence
that there is 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 all basically want 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

And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the
cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no
surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish
about 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 are 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.

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 even a person of one's own faith. Such a
warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the
concept of peace, but the 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. 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
intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before

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 nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and
King may not have been practical or possible in every
circumstance, but the love that they preached — their faith
in human progress — 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
naive, if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on
issues of war and peace — then we lose what is 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 nature makes him morally
incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that
forever confronts him."

So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark
of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.
Somewhere today, in the here and now, 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, who believes that
a cruel world still has a place for his 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 deprivation,
and still strive for dignity. 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 is the hope
of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that
must be our work here on Earth.

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