03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Benefits of Ambivalence: Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

President Obama's rhetoric in his Nobel acceptance speech was as powerful as ever. Obama pointed to the importance of striving for peace, and attempted to justify US involvement in Afghanistan. But the most significant aspect of Obama's speech may be a precarious balance struck between acknowledging the sad reality of the world and aspiring towards the realization of a better one. In this balance lies both his greatest peril and promise: whether this ambivalence will crystallize into a humble activism or degrade into either crusading moralism or nihilistic complaisance.

I have previously highlighted Obama's balance of hope and humility, in response to his inaugural speech. Obama believes human effort can improve the world, but realizes our limitations, proscribing the righteous self-confidence that so often characterizes ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum. Obama's Nobel speech was suffused with this theme, highlighting the justness of the US cause but also discussing the regret any great nation should feel as it sends its citizens to war. As Jim Arkedis pointed out, this involved presenting a progressive justification for military action, that force may be--in the terms of the just war tradition--a "last resort" for addressing the world's problems.

The balance in his inaugural speech, though, has developed into a tension after nearly a year of seemingly unending challenges. This tension lies between two points Obama made in his speech, both true. The first is, as he said, "oppression will always be with us." Contrary to the expectations of the Left and the neoconservatives, we cannot solve all the world's problems, through either military means or humanitarian assistance. Any initiative intended to improve the world must take into account the fact that it will not completely succeed, and America must guard itself from fluctuating between self-confidence and disenchantment. The other is that even though humans are imperfect we should still "believe that the human condition can be perfected." That is, the intractability of many of the world's problems does not justify adopting immoral but seemingly pragmatic policies.

Thus, there is an ambivalence to Obama's worldview, which is expressed in everything from his grandest rhetoric to the minutest details of legislation. I believe it reflects his basic view about the world and humanity: our problems will never be completely overcome, but the moral imperative to attempt this is all the clearer as a result. Humanity is capable of both great achievements and evil deeds, and we must constantly be wary about the latter. And this is based, as he said in his speech, on faith in the ultimate justness of our ideals.

Obama's ability to realize this truth is a testament to his intelligence, but it also represents a danger. As his Presidency progresses, the ambivalence may develop into contradictory and apparently cynical positions. Or it may crystallize into one extreme or the other, mindlessly trumpeting the justness of our cause or withdrawing due to the intractability of our troubles. The philosopher Michael Doyle warned of democracies falling prey to either moralistic crusading or complacency, and Obama's worldview contains within it both extremes. Obama runs the risk of simultaneously expanding and narrowing public support for internationalism, failing to present a coherent worldview to Americans.

Yet, Obama has the advantage of realizing this ambivalence. The next step is not to minimize or attempt to resolve it but to embrace it. This involves both the realization of the two truths in his Nobel speech, and the acceptance of a third; if progressive ideals cannot solve all the world's problems, then it is likely we will encounter situations where we must decide between our pragmatic interests and our ideals. This is not an abandonment of morality, however; realizing that self-interest and morality often diverge does not necessarily mean we should forsake the latter. Instead, it may make the case for morality all the more pressing, and prepare us for the sacrifices we must make. Indeed, this is one of the true lessons offered by the much-maligned Realists; if we believe the right way will be the easy way, we are deceiving ourselves.

Obama, thus, should develop this ambivalence and use it as a basis for America's foreign policy. Advancing our ideals without expecting ultimate success is a greater conviction than the naïve belief that we can fix the world. Moreover, it would ensure that our efforts are based on a sober assessment of their value, rather than unreasonable optimism. If Obama is able to accomplish this, he will prove worthy of the prize he recently accepted.

(Also posted at The Moderate Voice)