Remarks at Wilmington College's 133rd Commencement Ceremony

James B. Steinberg
Deputy Secretary of State
Wilmington, Ohio
May 10, 2009

Thank you so much, Matthew, for that introduction. And thank you for your service in our military, and for bringing your devotion to service to your daily life and your community here at Wilmington. All over the world, thousands of brave men and women are serving far from home on this Mother’s Day, to make our nation safe. We salute them.

Thank you President DiBiasio for hosting me on your campus. It’s a particular honor to share this special day with a college that has such a remarkable history of commitment to public service.

I have to admit, I was taken aback for a few minutes when I learned that I had been invited to give a commencement speech in a place called "Dubtown". I thought, "maybe they’ve got the wrong guy." After all, it was only a few months ago that I was sitting on the sidelines at the University of Texas while a Texan known as "Dubya" conducted foreign policy in Washington! But then I read about the fantastic work that your Peace Research Center is doing, and remembered back to some work I was privileged to be part of up the road in Dayton a little over 10 years ago, and I realized I would feel right at home.

As a former professor and Dean, I have always enjoyed commencement – but not nearly as much as you graduates are undoubtedly doing – not to mention your proud – and relieved – families. A couple of years ago, I was privileged to host the renowned journalist Bob Schieffer as our commencement speaker – who observed that graduation day was his favorite holiday. Bob is also well known for observing that there’s really no pressure on a graduation speaker, because no one ever remembers what the graduation speaker says. In that, he was only partially correct – there is pressure on the speaker – pressure to be brief so that you can all get on with the well deserved celebration.

But before your mind wanders to lunch with your families and friends, I hope you’ll bear with me for a few minutes while I saw a few words about the tremendous opportunity that lies before you and all of us as a nation and the world community – speaking from the perspective of someone who has been privileged to have been asked to serve our new President and Secretary of State.

I don’t need to tell this, or indeed any audience, here or abroad, about the remarkable hope that has attended the election of President Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

His election is path-breaking in many ways, but one important and less focused feature was his start in public service as a community organizer in Chicago. His early work of commitment to others of course calls to mind another President who was elected while still a young Senator in his forties, who also ushered in a new era of hope for the United States and the world.

That President was of course John Kennedy, from my original home state of Massachusetts.

In 1960, in the final weeks of a very close presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy arrived at the University of Michigan, at about 2 o’clock in the morning. The students had been waiting for him for hours on the steps of the library. Proving his great political acumen that night, JFK kept his speech very, very short. Yet in just a few minutes, he changed the course of how America related to the world.

JFK appealed to the students’ sense of a "greater purpose" and issued this challenge:

"How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past."

Kennedy introduced the idea of the Peace Corps with that speech. Almost 50 years later, 200,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 139 countries – bringing hope and opportunity to millions.

I can’t overstate the impact this has had – and continues to have – on how America is seen in the world. Even now, there are pictures of JFK hanging on walls – and there are streets, plazas and public buildings named after him – in villages and cities around the world.

President Kennedy knew the value of what my friend Dean Joe Nye has called "soft power" – the attraction of America’s ideals that cause others to join with us not out of fear – but out of a shared sense of purpose. Today, we call this "smart power" – because there is nothing soft about this powerful tool.

In this, President Kennedy harkened back to the wisdom of a commencement speech from a previous era. In 1947, General George Marshall, then the Secretary of State, spoke to the graduating class of Harvard. In that speech, General Marshall announced one of the most important initiatives in the history of American foreign policy. Under the "Marshall Plan", our country devoted tens of billions of dollars and countless other resources to rebuilding European countries that had been decimated by World War II – allies and foes alike.

The Marshall Plan was built on a vision of American leadership that was both idealistic and strategic. As Marshall told the students that day:

"Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist."

And with these words, those far-sighted leaders who were present at the creation – Turman, Marshall, Acheson and so many other visionaries – set the United States on a path that preserved our security by keeping faith with our ideals as a nation.

Both General Marshall and President Kennedy understood a fundamental truth about our country. They realized that at the end of the day, America’s strength comes simply, as President Obama likes to say, not from the idea of our power, but from the power of our ideas.

In other words, by advancing our values – of dignity, of liberty, of opportunity – we can also advance our interests.

They also understood the fundamental importance of working with other nations to achieve our shared goals. Out of the ruins of World War II, Truman and his colleagues help build the institutions of cooperation that form the cornerstone of our international system today – the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, and NATO. Kennedy, too, understood this central need for partnership – launching the Alliance for Progress for our hemisphere. They understood a simple truth that we have too often lost sight of in recent years, a truth summed up in an African proverb that former Vice President Al Gore likes to quote: "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others." Those words have special meaning in tackling the great advantages of our age.

Both Marshall and Kennedy understood the importance of an engaged citizenry. They recognized that America’s ability to do good depends on a commitment not just by our government, but by all Americans. A commitment to look beyond their own lives – to devote ourselves to the "greater purpose" Kennedy talked about.

In his inauguration speech this January, President Obama harkened back to this theme. He said, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world."

I know that in your own lives, and in your experience here at Wilmington College, you have seen the impact that individual citizens can have when they set their mind to it. During the Clinton Administration, I was privileged to work with Senator George Mitchell to help forge what became known as the Good Friday agreement, which brought an end to the decades known as "the Troubles" and ushered in a new era of peace which continues to take root today in Northern Ireland. Much has been written about the contributions of British Prime Minister Blair, Irish Teosaich Bertie Ahern, President Clinton and the political leaders in Northern Ireland, John Hume and David Trimble, who were ultimately honored with the Noble Prize in 1998.

But the real story behind the Good Friday agreement was the unsung, often dangerous work of Church leaders, community activists, women’s groups, Irish-Americans, and so many others. They were the ones who put their lives on the line for the chance of peace – and who really made peace possible. It’s often forgotten that the Nobel committee first gave a peace prize related to Northern Ireland to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan of the Community of Peace People in 1976; their work bore fruit with the Good Friday agreement 22 years later.

In many ways, the importance of an engaged citizenry is even greater today than it was in Marshall or Kennedy’s time. Our problems are becoming more complex. Increasingly, we realize that when it comes to climate change or global poverty, individual governments or even groups of governments can’t solve these problems on their own – no matter how well intentioned.

More and more we see concerned citizens rolling up their sleeves to help address genocide in Darfur and deforestation in Southeast Asia and Latin America; to push for nuclear disarmament and to help provide clean water and treated mosquito nets in Africa; to build microenterprises in South Asia. Some enlightened U.S. companies are raising labor standards and breaking down walls of discrimination not because they were ordered to by governments, but because they choose to do what they believe is right.

Universities have a special role to play in helping to tackle the new challenges of the twenty-first century. From pandemic disease to nuclear non-proliferation, the ideas that you are generating here and at colleges and universities across America provide new tools for us diplomats – and even more important, you are preparing a new generation with the knowledge and commitment to tackle problems of the future which we can’t even imagine today.

And lest you think this is just a typical commencement homily, remember that the idea of a world without nuclear weapons, which President Obama embraced in his recent speech in Prague, owes an incalculable debt to the work of places like your own Peace Research Center.

What makes colleges and universities so special is their commitment to civilized discourse – a place where differences can be aired and new consensuses reached. This is the spirit of President Obama’s commitment to dialogue even with our adversaries – not because we condone appeals to hatred or denials of basic human freedoms – but because we have confidence in our own values and a commitment to seek peaceful and principled resolution of our differences. In this, we also hark back to President Kennedy, who urged that we should never negotiate from fear – but never fear to negotiate.

This spirit of dialogue and discourse cannot be reserved for the diplomats but must infuse all our lives.

There will be many paths open to you in the years ahead. It may be no surprise that I hope some of you will choose to work in government. I am a State Department official after all! But public service is much more than that – it is a way of thinking and relating to the world in whatever you choose to do.

As a former dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School at the University of Texas, I also like to quote President Johnson. He loved speaking to college students too. And like President Kennedy, he gave one of his most important speeches at the University of Michigan.

At the school’s graduation ceremony in 1964, he talked about what he called "the Great Society". One where "old values and new visions" are not "buried under unbridled growth." Where "the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor." And where "our material progress is only the foundation on which we build a richer life of mind and spirit."

President Johnson was talking about American society. His Great Society initiative made historic strides against poverty at home.

But today, we have to extend this vision of a Great Society around the world – because it is clearer today than at any time in our past that we cannot prosper and thrive at home if we do not effectively address the challenges of economic opportunity and human dignity abroad – through individual and collective action, and through a commitment to public service.

I realize that everyone always thinks that their time is an extraordinary one with new vistas of hope and opportunity for the future. President Johnson expressed this feeling in his Michigan speech, when he said:

"Within your lifetime, powerful forces, already loosed, will take us toward a way of life beyond the realm of our experience, almost beyond the bounds of our imagination. For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed by history to deal with those problems and to lead America toward a new age. You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age."

I think you will share my belief that Johnson’s words ring as true today as they did 45 years ago.

In closing, I want to thank you again for the privilege of sharing this momentous day in your lives. And for the honor of receiving a degree from an institution that embodies these values of service.

Many, many congratulations on your great accomplishment of making it here today. And good luck.