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A profound speech on war and peace; a similar speech is needed on nuclear weapon policy

Posted by Ira Helfand, MD on December 10, 2009


President Obama's Nobel address was not the speech that many of us had hoped for.  He did state again his commitment to nuclear disarmament but he certainly did not use the address to build the case for eliminating nuclear weapons nor to lay out a plan for achieving this aim.

Having said that, the speech was an extraordinarily thoughtful meditation on issues of war and peace.  The address is referred to formally as the Nobel Lecture and the President seems to have taken the title very literally.

He began by addressing the irony of a leader at war receiving the Peace Prize, much as he began his address at the Notre Dame graduation this May by acknowledging the opposition to his invitation there by abortion foes.  And, as was the case at Notre Dame, he did not offer a facile response to the situation.
Many may disagree with his willingness, under certain circumstances, to use force in the pursuit of peace, but his arguments were substantive and eloquent, and it is hard to doubt the decency of his intentions.

In retrospect this may be just the speech that he needed to give at this point and from this place.  It was a clear but nuanced statement of the approach he intends to take towards issues of war and peace and a useful insight into the policies he is pursuing, and it was warmly greeted by the audience here in Oslo that gave him a prolonged standing ovation.

But if this was the speech the President had to give today, there is another speech he has to give soon.  His commitment to nuclear disarmament needs to be made more concrete, and the case for nuclear disarmament, which he will argue from the perspective of US national security interests, needs to be spelled out more clearly.  The slow pace of the START negotiations, which  failed to produce a follow on agreement before the old treaty expired last week, is not a cause for despair and it does  not indicate a lack of commitment by the US or Russian governments.  But it does underline the need for high level attention to, and direction of, the administration's efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons if these efforts are to move forward with the urgency and speed which ending the threat of nuclear war requires. 




Tom Newman said ..

I share Bob's disappointment, but recognize that we are a long way from the time when someone who would give a speech we would prefer could be elected. Still when talking about how difficult it is to work for peace, I wish he he had at least acknowledged the existence of the military industrial complex, as Dwight Eisenhower did at the end of his term, brilliantly captured in the film "Why We Fight."

December 10, 2009
M.Andre, German IPPNW Board said ..

I totally agree with Robert Gould concerning the Orwellian tone in the speech. Obama justifies the ongoing war-like development since 1945. As Dr Lown recently said in Berlin, the military spendings and the body-counts in this so called "peace policies" are remarkably schizophrenic. The spendings on military and war could have solved many global issues. Obama even wants to spread "civil" nuclear technology, as does NPT. It is more than just disappointing.

December 10, 2009
Paul Deaton said ..

While I respect my fellow PSR members' opinions, it is time for action, not talk. Strategies nor parsing of words. To hope for better articulation of President Obama's goal to seek a world without nuclear weapons is to delay the inevitable engagement each of us must make in the struggle. To view this speech and this Nobel Prize in anything but a positive light would reflect a cynicism that dooms us before we begin. We must renew ourselves to the task at hand, and make the most of this president's desire to create a world without nuclear weapons. We may not have another opportunity to do this in our lifetime.

December 10, 2009
Robert Gould said ..

Dear Ira and all, I would agree completely with Ira's position that President Obama needs to give another speech on nuclear disarmament, but it is difficult for me to see real progress on these issues with this Administration if it adheres to the "national security" perspective that suffused the published text of his remarks in Oslo. I find it alarming that in the wake of his decision to escalate in Afghanistan, the President is now presenting a benign view of the history of American military and foreign policy that could have come out of my Cold War “American History” textbook, or for that matter, the speechwriters of George W. Bush: “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 others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.” Sorry, but I view the foregoing, and much of the speech as a rather Orwellian recitation of “War = Peace,” which departs notably from the tone and content of Obama’s previous unprecedented opening to the world’s Muslim population, and which completely whitewashes the U.S. historical legacy of global military interventionism and being the main arms supplier to dictatorships around the world (all artfully eluded in his statement “America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens”) that enforce the dread conditions conducive to a particularly American (and Western European)sense of entitlement to the cheap consumer goods that until the recent downturn constituted the obvious correlates of “freedom and prosperity.” Unfortunately, I see Obama’s speech as little more than a clear announcement of this Administration’s dedication to the bipartisan commitment to the “Long War on Terror,” for which the hundreds of billions of dollars of resources needed to mitigate/adapt to climate change, etc., etc, will likely be squandered. Obama’s statement that “NATO continues to be indispensable,” similarly bolsters a military alliance structure that remains provocative to Russia and hence diminishes the chance for disarmament towards abolition, is primed for further interventions to secure fossil fuels in the Mideast and Caspian, and which remains a significant contributor through small arms sales to dictatorships and insurgents that provoke untold human rights abuses and general misery throughout the world. If we’re looking for real change on issues of WMD or related issues, it will have to be much more than promised in this speech. Just yesterday, the U.S. announced that, contrary to some expectations, that it would not support strengthening the inspection and verification protocols of the Biological Weapons Convention—a six year effort that was upended by the Bush administration in July 2001 in deference to U.S. pharmaceutical company proprietary rights and U.S. ambiguous “biodefense” programs that have been in likely violation of the BWC by permitting the development of novel agents and bioengineered organisms evocative of an offensive program that continues to ignite a biological arms race. This is another worrisome sign that real global security is being once again redefined by the U.S. as “our national interest”---with important consequences when anticipating “deals” such as keeping a viable U.S. nuclear establishment going (“Stockpile Stewardship”) for the sake of a CTBT that in such a context will do little to curb further horizontal proliferation in the name of other national “interests.” I guess I could say that this speech was a disappointment, but in the wake of Obama’s decision to spend our remaining blood and treasure in Af-Pak, not really a surprise. Bob.

December 10, 2009

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