Masthead image

Obama's Wars and Peace

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize and talking about the wars in which his nation is involved and the conditions under which he would approve America warring again, the world learned much about Barack Obama’s view of war and peace.

He indicated that he does not expect wars to end anytime soon. “We must begin” he said, “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 justified”.
And like every US President before him, Obama did not rule out ignoring international opinion and acting unilaterally if he considered US interests to be threatened.  He declared: “I - like any head of state - reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation.” 
Unilateral action, if necessary, is the first emerging strand of an Obama doctrine on war and peace.
It appears to be a doctrine that, far from eschewing war, recognises it as a necessary part of defence. He said; “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 is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason”.
Obama and his wife Michelle arriving for Peace Prize Ceremomy in Oslo
What seems to be a second strand in the Obama doctrine is an acceptance that war may be the only means to crush evil, and if war is judged to be required, then war it will be.   
Yet, while advancing the notion that war may be the only effective means of ending evil, Obama argued for rules to guide such conflict. “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”. 
Another strand in Obama’s emerging doctrine on war and peace is his judgement of the countries that will be the source of such wars in the future and how they should be treated. Apparently rejecting the possibility of a nuclear war among the old superpowers, the US and Russia, and with a pointed reference to Iran and North Korea, both of whom are suspected of wishing to develop nuclear weapons, he said: “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”.
Obama wanted the stiffest sanctions against offending countries by the international community. “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”.  
The same applied 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.”
It was also clear that while he saw the US continuing to play a role in ending conflicts where US interests were not necessarily threatened, he did not see the US retaining the role of the world’s policeman alone. “That is why we must strengthen UN and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries”, he said.
Afghan war in which US is firmly entrapped
Human rights are also a strong element of this emerging Obama doctrine on war and peace. “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... 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”.
He left the door open for countries, such as Cuba and China. “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 door.”
All this suggests that the elements in Obama’s doctrine on war and peace are: peace is desirable but war may be necessary and when it is war there will be; to protect America’s interest, war may be unilaterally declared regardless of international opinion; America will continue to play a role in ending conflicts within nations and between nations but it will expect other countries to carry some of the burden and to this end both regional and UN peacekeeping must be strengthened; and for peace to be achieved, it is vital that nations respect human rights and America is prepared to help them to do so, or intervene with others to stop atrocities.
Obama is often cast as an idealist, but the principles he set down are both realist and realistic. America is not about to relinquish its status as a super power with the military might to defend its interests and to intervene to end conflicts elsewhere.

Top of commentary |  Return to commentary archive