President Obama acknowledged his accomplishments were "slight" as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony Thursday in Oslo, but he said he would collect the award nevertheless in the hope that he could inspire others to "reach for the world that ought to be."
In a speech that his aides said was written with history in mind, the president focused on an inherent contradiction: that peace often is reached only through the agony of armed conflict.
Mr. Obama delivered remarks that appeared to be aimed at those, particularly in Europe, who long have been critical of American military excursions. He issued what could be seen only as a cutting reminder to those critics: "Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms."
"We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest - because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity."
"A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies," he said. "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."
Although the speech at times ranged into the esoteric, the president's exploration of the topic was concrete and immediate, as the man accepting the prize for peace was at the same time sending soldiers into battle. That conflict presented him with a daunting oratorical challenge, made more difficult by global realities.
He stepped to the podium scarcely a week after announcing his decision to expand the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and less than a week after his vision of a world without the threat of nuclear weapons received a major setback. The Nobel Prize jurors specifically cited that vision when they announced the award in October.
Last weekend, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 (START) expired before the United States and Russia could complete negotiations on a new version. Though both countries have said they intend to honor the expired pact in the interim, the Russians have moved to shutter an American monitoring post that kept track of Russian missile production.
Even more difficult, the president acknowledged, was that so few Americans considered him to be worthy of the honor. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found that 66 percent say the award was undeserved, compared with 26 percent who thought Mr. Obama had earned the prize.
Unlike when the award was announced, Republican lawmakers mainly withheld criticism, and one leading conservative,Newt Gingrich, praised the president.
"I thought in some ways it's a very historic speech. And the president, I think, did a very good job of representing the role of America, which has been that of - at the risk of lives of young Americans - creating the fabric of security within which you could have a Martin Luther King Jr. or you could have a Mahatma Gandhi," the former House speaker said on WNYC and Public Radio International.
Mr. Obama was quick to display his understanding of the criticism.
"I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated," he said. "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," the president said. "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."
Mr. Obama said that while he did not "bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war," he would use the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize to meet the challenges ahead. "These challenges will require the same vision, hard work and persistence" that were displayed by the World War II leaders who brought peace to Europe and much of the rest of the globe.
To this end, he called for global standards on the use of force, the use of sanctions that "exact a real price" to help head off armed conflict, the aggressive promotion of human rights and economic security.
"I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present condition makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him," he said. "So let us reach for the world that ought to be - that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls."
"Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he's outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace," Mr. Obama said. "Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams. Let us live by their example."