Obama’s realist idealism on the use of force

Dominika Švarc

In contrast with the traditionally pacifist tone of the Nobel Peace Prize lectures, yesterday’s acceptance speech by President Obama started by a shockingly clear recognition that this year’s prize went into the hands of a war president, »the Commander-in-Chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.” He bluntly acknowledged that he is “responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill, and some will be killed.”

This seemingly simple factual statement reflects the overall realist message of Obama’s Oslo speech: that warfare is unavoidable and that recourse to force may sometimes be “not only necessary, but morally justified”. To those who wondered whether the Nobel Prize will effectively limit Obama’s willingness to resort to military measures, this statement removes any doubts (in case any doubts remained after his decision to dispatch 30.000 additional troops to Afghanistan).

To make sure, Obama does not want to come across as a cynical proponent of war, which in his mind is but a sad expression of “the imperfections of man and the limits of reason”. He warns of the destructive power of war and the tragic implications of today’s “wars within nations”, in which “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”. Therefore, “no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy […] and we must never trumpet it as such”. However, as much as Obama might personally favour non-violent solutions, as a statesman facing the “cruelty and hardship of our world” and “threats to the American people”, he feels compelled to embrace the sometimes crucial role of “the instruments of war […] in preserving the peace”.

The crucial question in Obama’s mind is thus not whether military force should ever be employed, but when it should be used and how it should be applied. In his speech, Obama carefully outlined the basic contours of what might be seen as an emerging “Obama doctrine” or at least his philosophical stance on the use of American military force abroad. While the Bush administration (for most part) couldn’t care less about the rule of law in the matters of war and national security, Obama strongly defended international institutions and international law.

As to the question of when force may be used (a question of jus ad bellum, regulated primarily in the UN Charter Article 2(4), Chapter VII and Chapter VIII), Obama somewhat surprisingly endorsed some notion of “just war”, which he uses to support recourse to force not only in self-defence, but also on humanitarian grounds. However, Obama importantly limits the reach of the “just war” rhetoric by insisting that legitimacy of any military action ultimately hinges not on subjective political and moral understandings of “just causes”, but rather on shared normative understandings as reflected in international law:

“To begin with, I believe that all nations — strong and weak alike [emphasis added] — 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, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.

[…]

Furthermore, America — in fact, no nation — can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.  For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.”


Since Obama offered little explanation of his understanding of self-defence and humanitarian intervention, I think that this strong expression of principled support for international standards on the use of force must be taken into account when evaluating his take on the scope of legitimate and lawful military actions.

For example, it may indicate that his understanding of the right of self-defence is less broad than that of Bush administrations’ pre-emption approach, which clearly went beyond any accepted international standards. We will hopefully get a final answer in the next year’s national security strategy, but according to Bloomberg, the Bush pre-emptive strikes doctrine is being reassessed as part of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review of strategy and may be discarded.

Similarly, Obama’s embrace of humanitarian intervention is nothing novel or particularly progressive since he was careful enough to stay in the shelter of vague and open statements. He rightly noted that the 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 region” are “difficult” and that initial inaction might lead to more costly intervention later. But while he accepted that “force can be justified on humanitarian grounds”, he stopped short of explaining the circumstances and conditions under which such force may be warranted.

More importantly, he said nothing about whether humanitarian intervention should be limited to a collective action on the basis of a Security Council authorization, as endorsed in para. 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (I wonder whether his allusion to “clear mandate” may serve as an indication of such limited approach) or whether a unilateral humanitarian intervention without a Security Council authorization, which has little support in either State practice or international legal scholarship, might also be a valid option. Using the intervention in the Balkans as an example of a “justified” humanitarian intervention, one may conclude that he adopts the broader perspective, but again, one should be cautious about putting words into Obama’s mouth that were not there.

With respect to the question of how force may be applied, once the decision to employ it has been taken (this is the question of jus in bello, codified primarily in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977), Obama further reiterated his strong commitment to the rule of law:

“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 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.  (Applause.)  And we honor — we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”


In drawing a clear distinction between the world that is and the world that ought to be, Obama adopted a classic realist stance on the “cruelty and hardship of our world” and the occasional necessity of employing instruments of war in order to achieve peace. But he also made it clear that looking at today’s problems through a military lens is only a short-term emergency approach. Obama’s Oslo speech may have disappointed those who hoped that he was secretly a pacifist, but his commitment to make any decision on the use of force within the existing framework of international law and international institutions should not be understated. In seeking the balance between the complex realities of his inherited wartime presidency and his personal commitment to uphold the rule of law, Obama walked the path with honesty and dignity.

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About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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