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Video and Commentary: Obama’s Notre Dame Speech


(Video courtesy Politico)

President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame yesterday was, once again, an outstanding work of oratory. Much as he had confronted the issue of race during the campaign, he squarely addressed the controversy surrounding his visit to Notre Dame- the abortion issue. With a balanced approach, he refused to fall into the rhetoric of either extremes, calling for mutual respect and understanding, but recognizing that there continue to be “irreconcilable” views on the issue.

Even thought the speech only indirectly touched on foreign policy, I found one particular section most relevant to America’s effort to reconstruct its role in the international system. The President explained:

And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.

But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.

For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It’s no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule — the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. The call to serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.

Striking a note that he sounded in his Inaugural Address, Obama is again calling for humility. Gone is the rhetoric of black and white, “for us or against us.”  This approach sends an important signal to the rest of the world about America. And it also serves as an important internal check as the United States seeks to develop a new foreign policy. When we eschew self-righteousness, we are more likely to make better decisions because we acknowledge that we do not possess the complete Truth, but only see through a glass dimly.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.