How Obama’s Nobel Prize Speech Explains His Syria Policy


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President Obama accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.

President Obama accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wednesday morning, a Swedish journalist asked President Obama how it felt to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner pulling the United States towards war in Syria. Obama replied that “I would refer you to the speech I gave when I received the Nobel Prize,” a rhetorical gesture that may have revealed more than the President meant it to. Obama’s 2009 speech is a blueprint to his thinking on Syria, one that suggests that the question of international law is weighing far more heavily on his mind than most reports might lead you to think.

Obama’s Nobel speech was, for a defense of war, oddly optimistic. “We do not have to think that human nature is perfect,” the President said, “for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected.” A “fundamental faith in human progress” needs to “always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.” He cites as evidence three positive trends of in the last 60 years: a massive reduction in war deaths, a huge reduction in global poverty, and the post-Cold War global democratic boom.

The President gives the bulk of the credit for these hopeful trends to two forces: American military might and international institutions like the United Nations. Here’s where the speech’s relevance to Syria comes into stark relief.

Obama made it as plain as he could that wars inside nations, not those between them, were (along with terrorism) the principal threat to this newly and relatively peaceful world. In a passage that could have been written about Syria today, he said “In today’s wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, children scarred.”

A principal remedy for this, in 2009 Obama’s eyes, is justly exercised international power, particularly of the American and NATO flavors. “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later” and “when there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma –- there must be consequences.” Presumably, the same goes for mass murder and gassing in Syria.

Ideally, Obama wants the response to the violation of international norms to be non-violent. “In dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior.” That being said, “those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted.”

“I believe,” he says plainly, “that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds.”

So on the face of it, 2009 Obama and 2013 Obama seem like they’re on the same page. Assad has flagrantly violated the international norm against chemical weapons use and is killing his own people in ways that shock the international conscience and will generate further instability down the line. Something must be done to punish him.

But here’s the really tricky bit: 2009 Obama had some very choice things to say about how states enforcing these rules needed to themselves respect international law, things 2013 Obama might not want to hear.

Because Russia will certainly veto any Syria resolution at the U.N. Security Council, and the U.S. is not acting in self-defense, any attack on Assad’s army will not be authorized under either of the two standard international law provisions permitting the use of force. It’s a problem administration officials have all but publicly admitted, as one senior official “acknowledged the international legal constraints” in comments given to CNN’s Evan Perez.

Obama could try, as President Clinton’s team did in Kosovo, to argue that a Syria intervention is “legitimate” rather than legal. But in his Nobel speech, Obama forcefully rejected this approach to protecting international law. “America – in fact, no nation – can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves,” the President said. “For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.” “This becomes particularly important,” he continued, “when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor.”

The Nobel address couches this strong defense of deference to international law not on airy legitimacy grounds, but on a deep belief that American support for international law is critical to maintaining the global peace. “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, restrict the most dangerous weapons,” Obama said. “In many ways, these efforts succeeded.”

But the continued vitality of these institutions depends on the willingness of global powers to accept the so-called “rules of the road.”

“I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war,” the President says. “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor – we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”

One could imagine, then, 2009 Obama asking his present day counterpart why he was proposing to skirt international law in order to save it.

As it happens, 2013 Obama gave something of an answer to his past counterpart at Wednesday’s press conference. “I’ve made every effort [to] strengthen our commitment to multilateral action [and] promote diplomacy as the solution to problems,” but “the question, though, that all of us face, not just me, our citizens face, not just political leaders, is: at what point do we say, we need to confront actions that are violating our common humanity?”

“The international community’s credibility,” he concluded, “is on the line.” Unilateral force is a “last resort,” something he made explicit provision for in the Nobel speech.

Obama sounded somewhat uneasy with this decision at the press conference on Wednesday in Sweden. “This is the part of my job that i find most challenging every single day,” he sighed. After reading the Nobel speech, I can see why.