Over the last two years, there has been a lot of discussion in the press about president Barack Obama’s ethics of war and peace. In 2007, the journalist David Brooks asked Obama what he thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20th century theologian who is well known for his ethics of Christian realism. Obama replied, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” He then proceeded to explain what he took away from reading Niebuhr, which is nothing less than the standard Christian realist position that sin and evil are inescapable realities of history and that we must therefore be humble about our hopes for historical progress. Over two years later, Obama delivered a now famous Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway where the influence of Niebuhr’s Christian realism seemed to show up frequently as he wrestled with the tension between an ideal of peace and the harsh reality of war. Reflecting on the speech, Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate Magazine, “Read in its entirety, Obama's speech seems a faithful reflection of…Reinhold Niebuhr.” At the same time, there are explicit elements of the just war tradition in his speech. Which is it then? Is Obama a Niebuhrian realist or is he a just war thinker? As I will argue below through an analysis of two of Obama’s speeches on war, his ethical position is actually a hybrid of the two: strongly rooted in the Christian realist tradition while also maintaining the just war emphasis of universal rules of conduct.
One of the first interesting things to note about the Nobel Prize speech is the ethical positions that are rejected. Not surprisingly, Obama explicitly argues against principled pacifism and Holy War, the other two major Christian ethical responses to war and peace throughout history. What is somewhat surprising though, is that while Niebuhr saw pacifism as at best, heavenly idealism, and at worst heresy, Obama’s view of pacifism is more positive and nuanced: “I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed of Gandhi and King.” He also calls for more attention to “alternatives to violence” in international affairs. Still, Obama does not see nonviolence as the only legitimate option for conflict management in a world that is always prone to evil. His apparent presumption against violence is something that more hawkish just war interpreters (like George Weigel) would not be comfortable with, while his understanding of the tragic necessity of war is in line with Niebuhr.
In a later discussion about the ambiguous power of religion, Obama asserts, “A Holy War can never be a just war” because it cannot exercise restraint. This is one of Obama’s four explicit references to “just war” and he only mentions (if by implication) four of the eleven just war criteria: for jus ad bellum, just cause and last resort; for jus im bello, micro-proportionality and noncombatant immunity. It might be argued that Obama’s mention of these four just war criteria is simply in passing and of no consequence for understanding his own war ethic. After all, it is not clear in context if he is actually affirming these particular criteria. Shortly after Obama mentions the criteria, he even claims that the modern situation of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and increasingly common wars within states “will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war…” Obama seems to be claiming that although the traditional just war criteria are helpful, they may need to be adapted in response to new 21st century challenges. Although this might make some just war theorists uncomfortable, Obama is absolutely clear that international ethical standards of war are a necessity: “I believe that all nations – strong and weak alike – must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.” Furthermore, in Obama’s speech about the Libya crisis in 2011, his argument for humanitarian intervention seems to line up with a number of just war criteria. At minimum, the speech strongly implies the importance of last resort, just cause, right intent, discrimination, legitimate targets, and micro-proportionality. When this evidence is viewed in the light of his apparent presumption against violence and his emphasis on developing nonviolent alternatives, Obama’s flexible view of just war principles seems more likely to bend in a dovish direction.
It is also clear that Obama’s position on maintaining international ethical standards of war is both pragmatic and principled: “When force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.” In the Libya speech, Obama again asserts that America often has both pragmatic and moral reasons to help establish peace and justice in other struggling states (in this case, through humanitarian intervention). He argues that the interests of the United States cannot be isolated from the well-being of other states: “our own future is safer, our own future is brighter, if more of mankind can live with the bright light of freedom and dignity.” According to Obama, other nations around the world must enjoy basic freedoms, human rights, democracy, and economic opportunities if America is to prosper. These various statements from the two speeches still leave room for a Christian realism, even as it apparently rules out the possibility of Obama holding to an amoral, purely pragmatic, self-interested political realism.
While the evidence for Obama’s Niebuhrian Christian realism is rare and only seems to be implied in the Libya speech, it is everywhere and explicit in the Nobel Prize speech. In an implied critique of the efficiency of just war criteria, Obama states that even a war as seemingly “just” as WWII resulted in the death of far more civilians than soldiers: “no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy” because “although war is sometimes necessary…war at some level is an expression of human folly.” Obama echoes Niebuhr’s “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” when he argues that the religious ideal of the “law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature…we are fallible...but we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected.” This law of love is a “moral compass” for the ambiguous existence of both individuals and societies, who must strive for this utopian ideal of shalom that can never be fully actualized. Individuals can be relatively moral and societies can establish proximate justice. History can move in more or less positive directions, but not towards utopian perfection. As such, he is neither a Calvinist who believes in total depravity, nor is he like the rationalists that Niebuhr chides for naively believing in the essential goodness of humanity and a utopian view of history. In a revealing final statement, Obama states, “We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us and still strive for justice…Clear eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.”
In light of all that has been analyzed, Obama’s position seems clear: a hybrid of traditional Christian realism and flexible just war principles. He clearly calls for international ethical standards of war in line with the just war tradition, even if he might be willing to significantly revise them to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Obama also embraces the realist tension: embracing hope instead of cynicism while acknowledging the reality of evil in history that will never entirely be overcome. Obama stands not only with Niebuhr, but also with Augustine, who was both a realist and just warrior, who maintained a presumption against violence, and for whom even just wars are only the lesser evil.