Former president Jimmy Carter, warning that "the world is now, in many ways, a more dangerous place," today accepted the Nobel Peace Prize with a ringing endorsement for the United Nations and a plea for the United States to seek multi- lateral solutions to international problems rather than rely solely on its military might.
A frequent critic of many Bush administration policies, Carter avoided direct references to the White House in his acceptance speech. But he endorsed international restrictions on global warming, outlawing of the death penalty and the establishment of an international court to try alleged war criminals -- all positions opposed by the administration.
And he took an indirect swipe at the White House's declared policy of preemptive action against threats to U.S. security. "For powerful countries to adopt a principle of preventive war may well set an example that can have catastrophic consequences," he told an audience in this capital's ornate city hall.
Citing the United States' status as the world's sole superpower, he said Americans traditionally have "not assumed that super strength guarantees super wisdom." He added that, "imperfect as it may be," the United Nations is "the best avenue for the maintenance of peace."
It was a day of high emotion and deep satisfaction for the 39th president, 78, who was denied the peace prize in 1978 on a technicality and was defeated for a second term by Ronald Reagan in 1980. In a brief interview this evening, Carter said that although he had been disappointed to have lost out on the prize 24 years ago, it was more gratifying to receive it now. "I'll make good use of it," he said.
The peace prize committee said it chose Carter for his "vital contribution" in brokering the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, for his emphasis on human rights in international politics and for the work of the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based research and advocacy organization that he founded after leaving office in 1981.
"Jimmy Carter will probably not go down in American history as the most effective president," said Gunnar Berge, chairman of the five-member Norwegian awards committee, in introducing the winner at this afternoon's ceremony. "But he is certainly the best ex-president the country ever had."
Berge noted that Carter had been denied the prize in 1978 because he was nominated after the deadline and declared ineligible to share the award with Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat. "It became increasingly obvious that the bypassing of Carter had been one of the real sins of omission in peace prize history," said Berge. "This year we can finally put all that behind us."
The ceremony began after Carter's entourage of 81 friends and relatives -- including his wife Rosalynn, four children, 10 grandchildren and many veterans of his administration -- took their seats in the front of the flower-festooned auditorium. The former president then made his way to the stage to a standing ovation, after which the king and queen of Norway entered. Berge spoke first, then opera singer Jessye Norman performed "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
Carter's address touched on many of the themes of his post-White House career. He bemoaned the growing gap between rich and poor nations, made a renewed plea for Middle East peace and denounced those who invoke religion to justify waging war or terrorism.
"In order for us human beings to commit ourselves personally to the inhumanity of war, we find it necessary first to dehumanize our opponents, which is in itself a violation of the beliefs of all religions," he said. "Once we characterize our adversaries as beyond the scope of God's mercy and grace, their lives lose all value."
Carter said this false justification applied not only to terrorists, but also to armed forces that use high-tech weapons. "From a great distance, we launch bombs or missiles with almost total impunity, and never want to know the number or identity of the victims," he told the audience.
He and his friends and family returned to the city hall later in the day to participate in a one-hour live interview program hosted by CNN. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause when interviewer Jonathan Mann told Carter that he was "arguably the most respected American on the planet today."
Carter follows Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as the third president to receive the prize, which includes a check for $1 million. He said he would donate the money to the Carter Center. The prize, he said, "will obviously enhance our reputation around the world and make it easier to raise funds."