Obama’s Nobel Speech Opens Narrative Possibilities

by Bud Goodall

In Thursday’s Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama delivered the powerful narrative I had hoped to hear in his previous West Point address on Afghanistan.  I was critical of the West Point address due to: “the absence of a compelling narrative that links who we are, as a people, to what we are trying to accomplish over there.”  In this post, I want to examine the Nobel speech in more detail to explain why I think this speech succeeded and why it deserves to be taken seriously by anyone interested in the role of narrative in strategic communication.

First, let’s look at the role of the audience and context for the speech.  Our President offered a sober but inspiring war narrative before an elite international audience in Oslo.  These elites–leaders, dignitaries, high achieving academics, and even a few celebrities– were expecting, perhaps, the usual summation of thoughtful, poetic, “Nobelic platitudes” inspiring, as they usually do, a rhetorical if illusory bliss of peace.  What they heard instead from our Commander-in-Chief was a realistic assessment of the need for a strategic use of military force by the United States framed as a “just war” whose goal is “a gradual evolution of human institutions” to a lesser ideal state than world peace, but perhaps one that humankind may attain: “global security.”

The President’s audience was obviously not limited to the elites in Oslo.  It also included a vast mediated international audience watching either a broadcast of the speech or a replay of it on the Internet.  The two audiences, however, shared two sentiments that needed to be addressed early on in the speech:  (1) that Barack Obama did not necessarily “deserve” the prize, and (2) that a prize given for peace shouldn’t be awarded to a president who had committed his nation to two wars.  Obama, in a rhetorical moment both humble and effective, addressed both issues head-on:

And yet I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize – Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela – my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women – some known, some obscure to all but those they help – to be far more deserving of this honor than I.

But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by forty three other countries – including Norway – in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.

Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.

In the flawed West Point address, President Obama did not cite a moral or political imperative strong enough to support committing more troops, and more lives, to the effort.  This time he succeeded brilliantly, professing a philosophical allegiance to the non-violent leadership of Gandhi and MLK, Jr., while locating our military commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq within clear instances of intractable historical conflicts that could not have been resolved by peaceful protest or continued negotiations: “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

Effective persuasive speeches rely on a speaker’s ability to narrow possible alternative actions needed to solve a problem down to one action favored by the speaker.  Usually this is done with a combination of reason and emotion that reveal the character of the speaker to be one who is, as Cicero expressed it, “the good man speaking well.”  For Obama, this rhetorical end  is well accomplished by situating his plan for military action within the universal human struggle against tyranny, genocide, and oppression that could not be resolved in any other way, and then by outlining three goals that all nations must join together to accomplish in order to achieve global security:

  1. A call for unity in opposition to threats against global security:  “Intransigence must be met with increased pressure – and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.”  His example of “increased pressure” includes a continuing commitment to nuclear disarmament, continued pressure on rogue states, and the application of that same call for united action to places such as Dafur.
  2. An continuing commitment to freedom and human rights:  “So even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal.”  Obama points out that support for human rights is not the imposition of Western values on other nations, but the realistic application of methods for peace that work–the freedom to speak, to worship, to choose their own leaders, etc.  He uses Europe as the example of a region that only came to peace after instituting freedom.
  3. A continued commitment to economic development:  “a just peace includes not only civil and political rights – it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”

Beyond cultivating with the audience the Ciceronian ideal of “the good man speaking well,” the speech reveals what Kenneth Burke calls “identification” between the speaker’s values and attitudes and those held by the audience.  In addition to the general theme of finding ways to replace war with peace, Obama uses this need for identification by seizing the opportunity to find common ground among all the world’s faith traditions:

… we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint – no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith – for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

The above abbreviated analysis demonstrates why the speech was effective, both as a Nobel prize address and as a strategic use of the occasion of the award to justify America’s leadership in the struggle against violent extremism.  History may record this speech as one of his best–which I believe it is–but for those of us studying strategic communication there is one additional lesson we can draw from it.

This speech opens narrative possibilities.  Throughout the address Obama juxtaposes binary oppositions built from the war/peace trope, showing those terms, in fact, to be not binary oppositions but part of a larger and more complex dualism that defines the human condition, and for which we are still seeking solutions:  “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. … So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths – that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings.”  In other words, war and peace are not necessarily in opposition to one another.  They are as inextricably bound together in human history as our emotions are bound to our ability to reason.

Furthermore,  Obama challenges the idea that peace may be accomplished without sacrifice: “I also know this: the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.”  Having already admitted that his moral compass was heavily influenced by the non-violent work of Gandhi and King, Jr., he complicates the rhetorical divide of peace/violence with this observation: “we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place.”

At the end of the speech he returns to the theme of war and peace–never far removed from the substance of the talk–and says this:

We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that – for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

Notice that he turns all binary oppositions into mutually dependent dualisms or tensions, a ying and yang of the human condition.  In so doing, President Obama offers us a way to think about a way to move the narrative that was defined by binary oppositions (us versus them, Crusaders vs Islam, etc.) to a new ternary framing.  Perhaps in his stark and compelling narrative on war given to an audience for peace, he found the perfect context to complicate our thinking about strategic communication in new and productive ways.

2 Responses to “Obama’s Nobel Speech Opens Narrative Possibilities”

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  1. Gregory Garland says:

    Agreed. Oslo made up for the narrative deficiencies of the West Point remarks. Now, to follow up with the strategic communication apparatus.

  2. Bud says:

    Absolutely right, Gary. I’m curious what that might be …