Obama’s Just War Nobel Speech

President Obama’s address to the Nobel Peace Prize Assembly has been justly praised for reintroducing the tradition of “just war” thinking into discussions of peace-building. His carefully reasoned exploration of the use of force in a world of endemic strife challenged the easy oppositions between pacifism and belligerency that often paralyze our thought. He attended to both the reasons for which nations might go to war (jus ad bellum) and the ethics of waging war (jus in bello).

But the unwanted guest at the table, the one hovering in the shadows all through his talk, was yet another perplexing question raised in the just war tradition – the question of legitimacy. A just (or justifiable) war must be waged by a legitimate authority.

This is precisely the question at the center of the civil wars, revolutions, failed states, global terrorist movements, and humanitarian interventions that constitute the violent horrors of our time. It is also the question fostering many people’s discomfort at giving the prize to the Commander in Chief of the US Armed Forces, regardless of his signal profile and promise.

At several points he alluded to the joint character of contemporary military operations – in Korea, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and Somalia. At other points he stressed the need for strengthening international bodies for peacekeeping and humanitarian development. But he did not make a case for seeing this forging of new institutional forms as inherent to the question of war’s justification.

It is at this point – the creation of new forms of legitimate political power on a regional or global scale, including federal forms within nation states — that the use of violence must yield to the exercise of persuasive power at the heart of just politics. The use of force and violence is already a sign of the absence of legitimate authority, for the sense of legitimacy rests finally on people’s ultimate conception of what is right, just, and true.

Creating this foundation of political legitimation is a fundamental aspect of the work of building peace. Obama missed this connection. It is not one we can afford to neglect, both in our thinking and our work for peace.