In a hagiographic op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, David Brooks lauds the ethical theory adumbrated in Obama’s recent Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which he sees as falling squarely within the tradition of Christian realism à la Niebuhr:

It became unfashionable to talk about evil [after Vietnam]. Some liberals came to believe in the inherent goodness of man and the limitless possibilities of negotiation. […]

Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world.


In 2002, Obama spoke against the Iraq war, but from the vantage point of a cold war liberal. He said he was not against war per se, just this one, and he was booed by the crowd. In 2007, he spoke about the way Niebuhr formed his thinking: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

His speeches at West Point and Oslo this year are pitch-perfect explications of the liberal internationalist approach. Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.

Others, however, have not been so enthusiastic about Obama’s good-and-evil talk and his invocation, during the same speech, of the theory of Just War.

To Laurie Essig of True/Slant, the war in Afghanistan—fought as it is, in strikingly large part, by private contractors who consider themselves Christian mercenaries—continues to look more like a crusade than a good cause:

If Obama is right and the war in Afghanistan is “just,” and America is a “force for good in the world,” what are we going to do with a problem like Blackwater? Blackwater is fighting in our name, with our money, in a way that no sane person could describe as “just” or “a force of good.”

No amount of rhetorical flourish can hide the ugly truth that Obama’s wars are not some sort of heroic and just path to a better world, but ugly, dirty wars of Empire, including a Christian Empire.

But, as Robert Naiman notes, Obama did not explicitly defend the war in Afghanistan under the rubric of Just War theory; and this for the simple reason that it would not pass muster:

A plausible explanation for the President’s failure to argue that the war in Afghanistan is a “just war” is that he recognizes that such an argument would not be convincing.

As President Obama noted in his speech, there are criteria involved in the “just war” concept. It isn’t just a matter of proclaiming that a war is justified. There are tests.


The U.S. war in Afghanistan does not meet [the criteria enumerated in Catechism of the Catholic Church], and that’s why it’s not surprising that President Obama didn’t try to argue that it does.

Obama’s subtle evasions (as well as his call “to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace”) aside, the Church’s current stance on Just War is itself none too clear. In this regard, writes American University Professor of Law Kenneth Anderson:

I have long been struck that the Vatican does not follow just war ethics as even the formal apparatus of analysis.  Summarizing roughly, it seems to follow more closely the European line about the primacy of international law, or anyway a certain, thoroughly unrealistic, but literal, reading of the Charter.  I have sometimes wondered if the Vatican’s refusal even to speak the formal language of just war ethics—the five or seven standard criteria—was not intended as a very long term message that, although Americans associate just war ethics with Catholicism, it is not the law of the Church, but only one tradition within it concerning the use of force.

Anderson also offers an extended commentary on George Weigel’s response to Obama’s Oslo speech in the National Review. Weigel has spent the past three decades advocating the re-adoption of a less pacifistic iteration of Just War theory, and his latest essay is no exception. For Obama, however, according to Anderson as well as Brooks, the salient tradition is not Just War ethics, but “Niebuhrian realism”—that is, “a form of moral realism that has elements of just war ethics but also a much stronger sense of traditional realism—the “world as it is” of [Obama’s] speech—and which run against just war ethics as functional pacifism. There are tensions between this moderate moral realism and stricter versions of just war ethics, however, depending on the elements of each that one might emphasize.”

You can read more of Anderson’s writings on Just War theory here. A complete transcript of Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech is available from the Washington Post.