In Oslo, Obama declared that America is as capable of evil as anyone else. Peter Beinart on his sharp break with Bush-and his call for a new world order. Plus, watch his speech below and read the full transcript here.
Harry Truman, who George W. Bush often praised but never understood, once said that “We all have to recognize—no matter how great our strength—that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.” To Bush and Cheney and Palin, the sentiment is offensive. Why should America not do as it pleases? After all, since our power stems from our virtue, the more unrestrained we are, the more good we will do.
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But Barack Obama, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Thursday morning, showed that he understands just what Truman meant. Because he understands, in a way Cheney and Palin never will, that true moral universalism requires recognizing that Americans are just as capable of evil as anyone else. And that means recognizing that we are in just as much need of restraint. For Obama and Truman, the paradox of American exceptionalism is that only by recognizing that we are not inherently better than anyone else, and thus must bind our power within a framework of law, can we distinguish ourselves from the predatory powers of the past.
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• Thaddeus Russell: The Nobel War PrizeThat’s what Obama was trying to say in his address at Oslo City Hall. At the speech’s core lay a vision of moral reciprocity totally lacking during the Bush years. For Bush, American virtue was taken as a given. There were fallen, sinful human beings, and then there were Americans—and from non-proliferation to counter-terrorism to human rights, we instructed our moral inferiors on how to behave. If they had the audacity to try to turn the monologue into a dialogue, and judge the morality of our actions, we trotted out John Bolton.
In Oslo, Obama took direct aim at that moral chauvinism, declaring that “America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.” He didn’t just demand that Iran and North Korea eschew nuclear weapons; he called nuclear non-proliferation a compact, which requires that nuclear powers like the US begin to disarm. He didn’t just condemn human rights horrors in Congo, Burma, Zimbabwe and Iran; he acknowledged that an unfettered America is capable of moral horror itself—which is why we must ban torture and submit to the Geneva Conventions. He didn’t just praise US soldiers; he praised the peacekeepers of the United Nations, thus acknowledging that military force can occur within a framework of international institutions and international law.
Beneath all this lay a recognition that America’s struggle against evil in the world starts with the struggle against the evil in ourselves. That internal struggle is harder. As Adlai Stevenson once said, “it is often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them.” But it is precisely because it is hard—because demanding due process for terrorism suspects or dismantling our nuclear stockpiles or curbing our carbon emissions requires us to take risks and make sacrifices rather than simply demanding risk and sacrifice from others—that this internal struggle can inspire people around the world.
America’s internal struggle—on civil liberties, nuclear non-proliferation, the environment or health care—may not be going as quickly or smoothly as many American liberals would like. But after eight years of self-righteousness abroad and complacency at home, it has begun. That’s what was being honored today in Oslo.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.