Obama's Prepared Remarks on
Acceptance of Nobel Peace Prize
FoxNews. December 10, 2009. The following is a transcript of President
Obama's prepared remarks on his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize on
Dec. 10 in Oslo, Norway.
"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 forty three
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
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
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 thirty 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
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 sewn, 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 peace.
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 justified.
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 King.
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 non-violent movement could not
have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaida'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.
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 world's sole military
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 peoples' children and
grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
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 soldier's 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 feelings. 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
What might this evolution look like? What might these practical steps
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
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
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 waiver. 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 UN 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 war.
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
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 lasting.
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
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 world's -- 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 door.
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 families.
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 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 non-violence 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
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 protester 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
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 depravation, 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