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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Short Piece on Obama’s Peace Speech

Yesterday President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, and made some remarks that could use a bit of context and explanation.

Obama said that "billions have been lifted from poverty." Though he didn’t provide a time frame, he was discussing the effects of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan, both of which began in the late 1940s. We haven’t been able to find any reliable statistics that go back that far, but we did locate a report from the World Bank that pegs the decline in the number of people living in poverty at about half a billion between 1981 and 2005 — far less than the "billions" Obama said. The World Bank said that "new poverty estimates released in August 2008 show that about 1.4 billion people in the developing world (one in four) were living on less than $1.25 a day in 2005, down from 1.9 billion (one in two) in 1981." (The bank classifies anything less than $1.25 per day, in 2005 dollars, as poverty.)

The statistics could vary depending on whether absolute or relative poverty is being measured, as the Census Bureau explains, and we could not find figures for poverty levels in the late 1940s. We requested support for the president’s claim from the White House but haven’t received a reply.

Also, Obama said of the war in Afghanistan that America is "joined by 42 other countries — including Norway — in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks." There are indeed 42 nations in addition to the U.S. listed as "troop contributing nations" by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. But the contributions of some of those countries are little more than symbolic. While the U.S. has about 68,000 troops in-country, and roughly another 30,000 more on the way, Iceland is listed as currently contributing two troops to the cause; Ireland, seven; and Luxembourg, eight. Armenia is listed as contributing zero troops. Overstating international troop support for military operations overwhelmingly led by the U.S. is something we saw (to an even greater degree) in the last administration as well.

Finally, Obama said that "America has never fought a war against a democracy." His comment is rooted in a broader theory that argues that no democracies have waged war against each other. It has been researched and popularized by academics such as R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii. Rummel built on the work of Dean Babst, a researcher who had analyzed 116 wars of 438 countries between 1789 and 1941 and found that none were waged between what he characterized as democratic societies. Babst’s definition of democracy requires that nations be independent and have freedom of speech, an elected administrative executive and regular legislative elections for a body that controls the budget.

Rummel figured that two of the closest instances were the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the formative U.S. (discounted by Babst because Britain was not a full democracy) and the U.S. Civil War (disqualified by Babst because the Confederacy was fighting to be independent). Also, Finland sided with Germany in WWII but fought only against the Soviet Union, Rummel explains. Interestingly, Obama is at least the third president to make reference to this theory. President Bill Clinton, during his 1994 State of the Union speech, said that "democracies don’t attack each other," and President George W. Bush made similar statements on two separate occasions.

We can’t precisely say if Obama is right or wrong on this one. We’ll leave that debate for the message boards of political theory junkies where some argue the Spanish-American War was an all-democratic affair, though historians say the Spanish system of the 1890s was "oligarchical and in no sense democratic." But it might depend on which researcher you ask. The Polity IV project, an academic research program that grades the "concomitant qualities of democratic and autocratic authority in governing institutions," marked 1898 Spain as a "6" on a scale of 1-10 in democratic qualities.