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Obama's faith in diplomacy backed up with firepower

His Nobel acceptance speech should serve as a blueprint to guide international decisions on alleviating conflict, poverty and tyranny.

December 11, 2009

We've said before, and still believe, that awarding President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize after so short a time in office and so few concrete accomplishments was a mistake that diminished the credibility of the honor. But the acceptance speech he delivered Thursday in Oslo almost made it all worthwhile.

By now, we've come to expect intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving speeches from Obama -- it probably wasn't his experience or administrative skills that got him elected. But this address was a blockbuster even by Obama's lofty standards, as much a philosophical treatise on war, peace and human aspirations as a call to action for other world leaders. It should serve as a blueprint to guide international decisions on alleviating conflict, poverty and tyranny.

Moral clarity is often hard to come by in the post-Cold War world. The United States' traditional position as a model of democratic values was badly undermined by President George W. Bush, and unfortunately Obama is continuing some of the same misguided policies on detention and trial of terrorism suspects that turned our last president into a global pariah. Yet even if Obama sometimes has trouble living up to his own values, nobody expresses them better.

The ideas he outlined Thursday for achieving world peace aren't new; they were also articulated by President Kennedy, who called not for a revolutionary change in human nature but "a gradual evolution in human institutions." Toward that end, Obama laid out three key steps: a stronger commitment to meaningful international sanctions against regimes that threaten the peace, unswerving support for human rights and freedom worldwide, and pursuit of economic development in poor countries. We've heard such sentiments many times before, but Obama's special gift is to make them seem achievable by appealing to our higher nature.

"The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and [Martin Luther] King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance," Obama said, "but the love that they preached -- their fundamental faith in human progress -- that 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's best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass."

Obama has far more faith than Bush did in the power of diplomacy and the ability of global institutions to provide peace and stability, but it's a faith backed up with firepower. That's a strong combination.

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