Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Obama’s Journey from Oslo

John D. Carlson


December 21, 2012

By John D. Carlson 

It was three years ago this month that President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech conveyed his moral vision of international affairs and provided a guide for the foreign policy successes of his first term. However, the challenges that confront his second term reveal where refined direction is needed.  

Obama’s foreign policy has drawn from three different moral languages—just war, American exceptionalism, and Christian realism—all articulated in Oslo. Their frequent compatibility helped shape Obama’s achievements, but to extend this foreign policy record he must reconcile them where they now conflict. Let’s consider them in turn.

First, he invoked “just war” language at least 18 times in his lecture. War must be waged for a just cause, as a last resort and using proportional means. “Total wars,” by contrast, blur essential distinctions between combatant and civilian. Obama emphasized the humanitarian dimensions of using force to stop the “slaughter of civilians by their own government” in genocide or civil war: “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later,” Obama implored. Such principles aptly explain his decision to intervene militarily in Libya.

Second, the resounding vernacular of American exceptionalism also echoed throughout Oslo City Hall. As with John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” and President John F. Kennedy’s charge to “pay any price, bear any burden” for liberty’s survival, Obama extolled the nation’s important history and responsibilities. He rebuffed “reflexive suspicion” of America—a nation that “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Global order has been achieved through various U.S.-led international efforts that Obama referenced: from the League of Nations to “the 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 my recent collection From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America, several scholars explore the religious ideas that inspired famous American covenant-makers from John Winthrop to Woodrow Wilson and John Foster Dulles (all Calvinists). We also consider how covenantal thought and providentialism have shaped different variants of American exceptionalism. Distinguished from President George W. Bush’s “exemptionism,” Obama’s exceptionalism conceives America as “standard bearer.” No one “can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves,” he explained. This view—what State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh has called “exemplarism”—informed Obama’s decisions to prohibit torture, reaffirm the Geneva Conventions, and close Guantanamo Bay.

Finally, Obama borrowed from his favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, when he rejected the false choice between realism and idealism. Christian realism, a middle path, integrates moral and political realities in decision-making. Work towards limited achievements of justice and order; avoid utopian perfectionism. According to this view, nations should incorporate ethical concerns in defending their interests, as seen in Niebuhr’s support for early U.S. involvement in World War II and in Obama’s surge in Afghanistan. Both men faced down moralistic critics who opposed more war. As Obama affirmed, “Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda to lay down their arms.” Niebuhrian realism perhaps best explains the decision to kill Osama bin Laden rather than bring him to trial as some idealists preferred.

Most presidents speak some moral-religious language, which can be an asset, liability or both (recall here George W. Bush’s foreign policy pietism). Obama’s fluency in three different languages carries its own risks, since they can’t always be spoken simultaneously. Several problems still vexing his administration suggest where these outlooks conflict.

Guantanamo Bay may blight America’s exceptional status and exemplary commitment to due process. But sheer utopian idealism was behind Obama’s executive order to close the detention center in one year. A clear-eyed Niebuhrian realist would have anticipated the domestic and international political obstacles to fulfilling this promise. Some shrewd statecraft and deal-making will be needed to clear the remaining detainees.

Obama’s intense reliance upon armed drones certainly comports with just war imperatives to target combatants—by name even! But U.S. drone use is incompatible with American exemplarist principles: No one wants the rest of the world to deploy drones like we do. Counsels of ethical realism suggest that drone usage, unless made more transparent, will become counterproductive to defeating global extremism, thereby ironically undermining national interests and global order.  

Lastly, the success of the Libyan intervention on just war grounds overwhelms any compelling rationale for the inaction in Syria’s infinitely graver humanitarian crisis. This reluctance to intervene is neither exemplary nor in keeping with America’s commitment to freedom and global order. By underscoring intersecting concerns about order and justice, Niebuhr’s ethical approach avoids the rigidity of certain restrictive just war interpretations and provides a more flexible, constructive path forward.

President Obama’s Nobel address remains a useful moral guide to his past foreign policy successes. Resolving the remaining challenges now requires him to choose among competing moral vocabularies. Niebuhr’s realism, attuned as it was to certain merits but also the limitations of just war and American exceptionalism, stands the best chance of translating Obama’s moral vision into an effective political agenda.

—John Carlson is Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University, where he is also Associate Professor of Religious Studies. He participated in the Center for Public Justice Civitas program faith and public affairs in 2001. His book From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America (co-edited with historian Jonathan Ebel) was published earlier this year. This column is adapted from a longer essay in Religion and Politics.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”