(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Three years ago today, President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize. The awkward contexts of 2009 that accompanied, if not overshadowed, the award and his Nobel address are worth recalling. The Nobel Committee had announced “the world’s most prestigious prize” just eight months into the president’s first term of office in spite of his admittedly “slight” accomplishments, to use his words. Then, a few months later, the Nobel Committee conferred the Peace Prize only days after Obama announced he was escalating the war in Afghanistan, ordering a surge of 20,000 additional troops. Given such ironies, it’s easy now to overlook this early chapter in Obama’s tenure. That, however, would be a mistake.

President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize address conveyed his moral vision of international affairs and laid the groundwork for the foreign policy successes of his first term. His foreign policy ethic has drawn from several moral languages, all of which he articulated clearly in Oslo. By “moral languages,” I mean the principles and vocabularies of different religious, ethical, and political traditions—in this case, “just war,” American exceptionalism, and Christian realism. Where these moral languages have converged or reinforced one another, they provided a foundation for Obama’s achievements. Where they conflict, however, one sees cracks that have begun to form. To extend his foreign policy record and resolve the intransigent problems spilling over into his second term will require reconciling, if not choosing among, Obama’s different moral vocabularies.

To begin with, Obama defended the use of force on moral grounds, invoking “just war” and cognates like “justice” and “justifiable” some 18 times. The just war tradition can be traced from its theological roots in Augustine and Aquinas to modern jurists such as Hugo Grotius. Contemporary articulations by Michael Walzer, James Turner Johnson, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have contributed to the renaissance of just war thought in the last sixty years by fostering moral reflection on numerous wars. Just war demands adherence to certain ethical rules: war must be waged for a just cause, as a last resort, and using proportional means that do not target noncombatants. By contrast, “total wars” blur the essential distinction between combatants and civilian. Obama was not the first president to evoke just war vernacular. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter had done so before. But Obama’s account was more nuanced and less politicized given the ceremonial context of his speech. War may be necessary but “never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.” Obama emphasized humanitarian approaches to just war, arguing that force is justifiable to stop the “slaughter of civilians by their own government,” in genocide, or civil war. “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later,” he reminded his audience. Such language and principles provided a crucial context for understanding the president’s decision to part ways with administration officials such as defense secretary Robert Gates and commit the United States to military intervention in Libya.

A second moral language resonating through Oslo City Hall was the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. Going back to Puritan invocations of “the city upon a hill” or Revolutionary War-era appropriations of “the new Israel,” this discourse presumes that, from the early colonies throughout the history of the nation, America has enjoyed both special blessings and special responsibilities. One locates in this tradition John F. Kennedy’s famous charge to “pay any price, bear any burden” for the survival of liberty. Obama also embraced this dialect in his speech when he rebuffed certain listeners’ “reflexive suspicion of America,” acclaiming, rather, the nation’s important role in the world: “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.”

In the twentieth century, global order was sustained through various US-led international covenants and accords, including several that Obama singled out in his address: from the League of Nations to “the Marshall Plan and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, [and] restrict the most dangerous weapons.” Embedded in these agreements—and in American exceptionalism more broadly—is a covenantal theology that has influenced key American covenant-makers, from Massachusetts Bay founder John Winthrop to his modern Calvinist heirs such as Woodrow Wilson and John Foster Dulles. Both sons of Presbyterian ministers, Wilson proposed the League of Nations (for which he received the Nobel himself) while Dulles helped craft the preamble of the UN Charter.

It is true that many people associate American exceptionalism with exemptionism—as when the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty to join the League of Nations in 1919 or, just this month, voted down a UN treaty modeled on the ground-breaking Americanswith Disabilities Act. In the previous administration, President Bush “unsigned” major treaties and invaded Iraq by “going it alone.” Interestingly, Obama’s Nobel address actually reasserted “the right to act unilaterally.” Yet he clarified it as a right of self-defense that belongs to all nations. Indeed, Obama’s brand of exceptionalism conceives America as a “standard bearer” in the world—what Harold Koh calls exemplarism. As distinguished from Bush’s exemptionism, Obama appreciates that no one “can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.” This commitment to American exemplarism vitally shaped Obama’s decisions to prohibit torture, recommit to the Geneva Conventions’ inviolability, and order the closing of Guantanamo Bay (though 150 or so detainees currently remain in the facility).

Finally, Obama liberally invoked the ideas of twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Those who have identified Niebuhr as Obama’s “favorite philosopher” may be seeking an apt and humble correction to George W. Bush’s famous announcement that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. (Either seems an improvement over Jimmy Carter’s top sage—reputedly, it was Bob Dylan.) As Niebuhr had done before, Obama explicitly rejected the false choice between Machiavellian realpolitik and naïve idealism. Niebuhr’s Christian realism (or ethical realism) offers a middle path, taking moral and political realities into account in any decision-making process. Niebuhr’s realism viewed political savvy as a force for taming uncompromising moralism. In the recent film Lincoln, a poignant dialogue between Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist representative Thaddeus Stevens offers just such a portrayal. In urging the firebrand Stevens to show restraint when taking to the House floor to support the Thirteenth Amendment that would outlaw slavery, Lincoln offers Stevens some counsel about employing his moral compass. He says something to the following effect: “A compass may point true North, but it gives no indication of the swamps and marshes along the way. If you can’t navigate them, what good is your compass?” Niebuhr, a great admirer of Lincoln, appreciated well the perils of utopian perfectionism and the need to work gradually towards limited ethical goals.

Within Niebuhr’s framework, justice and order are the politically operative goals. They depend upon power and coercion, if not force and war, to achieve (though Niebuhr often found just war principles too inflexible). Translating from Niebuhrian language, Obama remarked in Oslo, “To say that force sometimes may be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” Like Niebuhr, Obama denied that human nature can evolve itself out of war; similarly, statesmen do not have the luxury of embracing pacifism. “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people,” Obama made clear. “For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.” Nations can, though, in the course of defending their interests, interweave moral concerns, as Niebuhr did in 1939 when he supported early U.S. entry into World War II on political and moral grounds. Obama’s West Point speech announcing the troop surge in Afghanistan makes comparable appeals. Setting out moral arguments enabled both men to face down moralist critics who opposed more war. In short, Niebuhrian realism appreciates that, in order to sustain its moral dimensions, politics rejects moral perfectionism. This framework best explains the decision to kill Osama bin Laden instead of capturing and bringing him to trial, as some rule-based absolutists preferred.

Both for better and for worse, most presidents adopt a moral-religious language to express their foreign policy. Remember George W. Bush’s foreign policy pietism? Think back to those stirring words from his 2003 State of the Union address: “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.” Of course, later that year President Bush designated the US military to be the vehicle for delivering that divine freedom to the Iraqi people. President Obama’s remarkable fluency in three different moral languages affords a more sophisticated approach that accounts for various successes during his first term. But this fluency also has unique risks of its own. To wit, it’s difficult to speak three languages at the same time. Where they conflict, the most daunting problems now facing his administration lurk nearby.

Let’s start with Guantanamo Bay. The United States may be an exceptional nation, called to model our commitment to due process to the rest of the world. (This is also consistent with just war concerns to extend the rules of war to irregular combatants). But it was myopic idealism to order the GTMO detention center closed within one year. A clear-eyed Niebuhrian realist should have recognized much earlier the domestic and international obstacles that stood in the way. If Obama hopes to clear the remaining detainees, he will need more than his moral compass. He will have to wade into the marshes of statecraft and trek through the swamps of congressional and state politics to do some good, old-fashioned deal-making.

Second, the Obama administration’s use of armed drones generally meets just war imperatives since noncombatants are immune from intentional targeting. Even when drones have unintentionally killed civilians, the casualty rate has declined significantly since 2009, according to the New America Foundation. From 2010-12, between 80 and 94 percent of those killed by drones were militants. Yet, there is no way to explain drone usage in the language of Obama’s exemplarism, since no one wants international standards that allow the rest of the world to deploy drones the way we do. More importantly, it may not matter how precise drones are. If militant propaganda in Pakistan says otherwise, civilians will believe those militants on the ground with them rather than high altitude assurances of U.S. remote control warfare. Such propaganda could be countered only if the United States was more transparent about its drone program. An ethical realist approach would begin with the need to recalibrate U.S. drone usage or risk exacerbating global extremism, weakening national defense, and undermining international order.

Finally, American reluctance to intervene further in Syria has been neither exemplary nor in keeping with America’s commitment to global order or the defense of liberty. When viewed through a just war lens, the relative success of the Libyan intervention would seem to undercut any morallycompelling explanation for the administration’s weaker response in Syria’s infinitely graver humanitarian crisis. In reality, though, just war’s rule-based arguments are often rigidly and restrictively applied in ways that defy complicated cases like Syria. Some just war critics of intervention worry that humanitarian concerns are too difficult to disentangle from various national interests. Niebuhr’s ethical approach, however, assumes the moral complexities of politics and looks for areas where concerns about order and justice intersect. The convergence in Syria of humanitarian concerns, U.S. national interests, and threats to international order underscore the need for a more flexible language and agile approach for resolving conflict.

Barack Obama’s Nobel address offered more than just lofty or inspiring political prose. The speech serves as a guide to the moral languages that have shaped his foreign policy so far. His achievements emerge where his different moral vocabularies complement one another. But the foreign policy challenges now confronting the president are complicated by his inability to draw together the different moral and religious discourses on which he relied throughout his first term. Now is a good occasion for the president to return to his Nobel address and decide which moral vocabulary will help resolve the remaining problems before him. I’d wager that because Niebuhr’s realism was attuned to the limits of just war principles and the inevitable failures of American exceptionalism, Obama’s favorite philosopher stands the best chance of helping transform his moral vision into political reality.

John D. Carlson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Associate Director at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University. His most recent book is From Jeremiad to Jihad: Religion, Violence, and America.