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William F. Felice

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Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Speech–Embracing the Ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr: More Continuity than Change in US Foreign Policy?

In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, President Obama argued forcefully that the US and the international community “cannot avert their eyes” when international laws “are flouted.” He stated the need for “consequences” when governments brutalize their own people, citing “genocide in Darfur; systematic rape in the Congo;…repression in Burma.” He emphasized multilateralism, stating the “closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.” And, to the dismay of many nonviolent, peace activists, Obama embraced the role of the military and the use of violence in a world of terrorism and evil. These comments echoed warnings given by Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr who stated that moral choice in foreign policy is often not between the moral and the immoral, but between the immoral and the less moral. Obama has cited Niebuhr as one of his “favorite philosopher[s].” This article explores the connections between Niebuhr’s views of human nature and politics and the normative framework Obama presented in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo. In addition, Obama’s foreign policy during his first years is analyzed in relation to his rhetorical commitments at Oslo. If Obama has adopted the ethical approaches of Reinhold Niebuhr, what are the foreign policy implications? Thus far, the Obama approach has not meant fundamental change, but rather a “realist” continuity in US foreign policy.

Afghanistan, Darfur, drones, extraordinary rendition, just war, Machiavelli, National Security Strategy, Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, Nobel Peace Prize, political realism

Citation: Social Justice Vol. 37, Nos. 2-3 (2010-11): 47-60.

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