A mix of idealism and national self-interest has often marked American leadership in the world. But not many US presidents have put the golden rule at the center of their foreign policy.
What President Obama calls the "law of love" – or do unto others as you would have them do unto you – was a focal point of his sweeping speech in Oslo after being awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday.
He often uses this religious idiom in his loftier speeches. It reflects a desire to give moral imperative to activist government – mostly at home. And he readily admits, after only 10 months in office, that his moral stances, rather than any concrete action, won him the prize.
But one particular action – sending more troops to Afghanistan even as he was being honored as a peacemaker – required him to speak of the differences between a "just war" and one waged outside global "standards that govern the use of force."
He painted the war in Afghanistan as one of self-defense for the United States and its Western allies – against what he calls "a few small men with outsized rage [who] murder innocents on a horrific scale."
But the US is not just any nation in citing self-defense. He used the occasion to remind the world that America, as a superpower built on universal ideals, has had to use force again and again over six decades to help "underwrite global security" out of "enlightened self-interest" but also often from a moral imperative.
What's more, the threats to security are now very different – rogue states with nuclear weapons, civil wars with massive killing, and jihadists using destructive force on the innocent.
The US must increasingly share the burden in countering these new threats. That's one reason he referred to the most successful military alliance in history, NATO, as indispensable to peace. The US must also find a balance between fencing off the world's moral outcasts with sanctions while engaging them with negotiations to offer an "open door" toward a new path, as he put it.
Such steps are especially necessary for the US as its people appear to be returning to an isolationist view of America's role, according to a recent poll, which denies what Mr. Obama calls "our sense of possibility."
But the most difficult challenge to his vision of leadership by golden rule is Iran's nuclear ambitions and the dangers of a Middle East arms race. And Obama is faced with a decision soon on whether to abandon his approach of engaging Tehran's clerics and either impose sanctions – that may not work – or order a preemptive strike on Iran's atomic facilities.
Such a choice makes this speech more than an abstract thesis. Obama seems eager to warn the world of religious extremists who resort to violence in the name of God and show no restraint. But he also provides an antidote: the law of love and a faith in human progress.
Moral imagination and the spark of the divine, as he calls it, can wrestle down the temptations of pride, power, and evil.
Lofty goals, indeed, from a young war president who, like his predecessors, struggles with the limits of US idealism.