Remarks at the Fulbright Foreign Student Enrichment Seminar

John Kerry
Secretary of State
George C. Marshall Center
Washington, DC
March 15, 2013

The video below is available with closed captioning on YouTube.

SECRETARY KERRY: (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you very much. (Applause.) Thank you very, very much, all you super smart people. (Laughter.) I am really happy to meet with you today. It’s a great privilege for me. Thank you. And as Under Secretary Sonenshine said, I have been a passionate advocate of the Fulbright Program for years and year and years.

And I’ll tell you a little story about it, but first I want to thank our distinguished guests for being here. I’m delighted that John Sarbanes is here – Congressman, former Fulbrighter, and the son of a great pal of mine, Senator Paul Sarbanes, who used to sit to the right of me on the Foreign Relations Committee. And in fact, there was now-Vice President Biden, Paul Sarbanes and Chris Dodd, and then I was the next in seniority. And I’d look at these guys – Dodd, Sarbanes, Biden, young, strong. I’d say to myself, I’m never going to be chairman, these guys are going to be here forever. (Laughter.)

And I honestly believed that. And then literally, in one fell swoop, all of a sudden the rest is history. Paul Sarbanes decided to retire, and Chris Dodd, likewise, went over to the Banking Committee, and because he was in the Banking Committee, he didn’t feel he could come back and chair, which was his right – the Foreign Relations Committee. And of course, Joe Biden, as we all know, was asked by Barack Obama to be Vice President of the United States. And so little old me suddenly wound up filling the shoes of none other than William Fulbright. And that’s how it works, folks. You just hang around. You just hang around. (Laughter.)

At any rate, it is a pleasure to be here with all of you. And, Ambassador Felipe Bulnes – one, two – we have another Fulbrighter here as an ambassador today. And Ambassador Chaiyong Satjipanon, who is of the Royal Kingdom of Thailand, thank you for being here with us. We appreciate it very much. (Applause.) He earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Fletcher School at Tufts University in none other than Massachusetts, of course. (Laughter.) And Ambassador Nguyen Quoc Cuong, and he is of Vietnam, also a graduate of the Fletcher School. (Applause.) And I’m really happy to have him here. He is a graduate of the Fulbright Program, but I will tell you a story, and it’s relevant to what all of you are doing.

Around 1989, ‘90, maybe a little bit before that, I became involved in the effort to try to make peace with Vietnam. We still, strangely enough, were kind of psychologically at war, and there was a huge issue about prisoners of war being kept in Vietnam still after the war. And we couldn’t lift the embargo, and we couldn’t move to normalization until we dealt with that issue and then began to sort of move down the road. So John McCain, Senator McCain and I, became involved in this effort. There was a select committee created in the United States Senate. And at the time, I met up with a Vietnam veteran friend of mine, a former Marine, who really had a vision about a school in Hanoi and opening a Fulbright Program in Hanoi – excuse me, in Saigon – then-Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. And we decided, yeah, this is a great idea. I’m a passionate advocate of the Fulbright and what it brings to us. And so we did. We started this program, and I’m proud to say that at one point a couple of years ago, it became the largest Fulbright Program of all of our Fulbright Programs in the world – now superseded, surprisingly to many people, by the program that we have with Pakistan. (Applause.)

Ah, welcome. (Laughter.) There you go.

So, as the Ambassador would tell you, a huge number of the folks who are now involved in government at all levels of Vietnam have been graduates of that Fulbright Program. And the value of this, I think, simply cannot be understated. I have met Fulbrighters in every walk of life, in every stage of engagement, in foreign policy and in leadership positions. And I will tell you that just the other day, I was in Saudi Arabia, where Prince Saud al-Faisal is the Foreign Minister. He’s been the Foreign Minister there since 1975. He was not a Fulbrighter, but he is a Princeton graduate, and enormously proud, and still linked to that education and those times that he had at Princeton.

I cannot tell you how many leaders I’ve met – prime ministers, finance ministers, foreign ministers, presidents and others – who once upon a time either were Fulbrighters or went to school in the United States and have affection and a connection as a consequence of that, and vice versa. People who have come to the United States and/or gone to another country – it works both ways. And you never forget the friendships that you build, the cultural, political, philosophical, economic, social grounding that you get from that experience and how it connects people and connects countries. That’s what Senator Fulbright believed. And he was right.

As Tara said, the notion that what you think and understanding what someone else thinks is more important than another submarine. It’s really more profound than people think. And if today we had more people who could break down the barriers, break down the stereotypes, and take away the ideological extremes, and get rid of the sloganeering, and eliminate the simplistic sort of reduction to a stereotype that so many people engage in, and really find out, what does this person want? What does this person really think? What kind of family do they come to – come from? And wow, when you open those doors, you realize they’re really not that dissimilar – mother, father, brother, sister, uncles, grandparents, people who care about each other, people who want opportunity, people who want the right to respect each other, have an opportunity to have a good job, get an education, live their lives, hopefully free of violence and oppression.

When you think about where the world is today, the meaning of what you’re going through is even greater. And that’s what I want to leave you with here today. The 20th Century was simple compared to what we’re already facing in the 21st Century. The 20th Century, the Cold War, which dominated from 1945 all the way through the ‘90s, that’s half the century. And the two world wars, east and west, and totalitarian versus freedom, and pretty straightforward. The truth is that that tampened down a lot of the sectarian and ideological and religious divide, and some of it was tampened down within borders that were artificially drawn, just a line slapped down by a few leaders sitting in a room and saying, how are we going to resolve the end of World War I? Or how do we deal with these, quote, “upstarts” or however they were termed.

And so we’re living with the consequences of that today. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disappeared and a whole new set of democracies emerged, and individuals like Lech Walesa could jump over a fence and start a revolution, it just changed the way people think. Nelson Mandela gets out of jail, 27 years, and hugs his captors and builds a nation. I mean, these are the kinds of things that make the great differences. And as Fulbrighters, frankly, you have an extraordinary opportunity way beyond that that a lot of students get, because you are automatically thrown into this confrontation with another culture, another form of government, another language, another sort of basis for life. And you have to confront these differences in ways that many students never are privileged to. So it is a great privilege.

I’m happy to tell you that I have a daughter who is now a doctor who was a Fulbrighter. And she went to the London School of Economics and studied public health. And now she is working on global health issues and just came back from Uganda a week ago with another person who’s here. (Laughter.) Okay. Let’s get it over with. Everybody who wants their country shouted out, just stand up and – (laughter and applause) – we’ll do it. Whatever works. There you go.

Okay, now we’ve celebrated everybody. All right? (Laughter.) So she has been involved in helping to build health capacity and wants to do more than just sort of bring clinical care to a country, but wants to see that country build the capacity to have sustainable care so that when the doctors leave, there are people there who are doctors and have the ability to be able to provide the care. I’m telling you, this is a world full of unbelievable opportunity staring at you guys. You are so lucky to be where you are in life in many ways. I know it looks confounding and it looks troubled, and there are complex challenges.

But just think what’s happening. What happened in Tunisia was not ideological, it wasn’t religiously inspired; it was a fruit vendor who was oppressed and who fought back against the oppression of a police officer who was telling him he couldn’t sell his fruit where he wanted to. And so humiliated and dragged down, not by that one incident, but by years of this, that he went and immolated himself, burned himself to death in front of the police station and ignited a revolution in the doing of it. All those kids in Tahrir Square, they weren’t Muslim Brotherhood, they weren’t Salafists, they weren’t Shia, they weren’t Sunni-driven; they were driven by the desire to have a decent life. Young people who connected in the world today, as everybody is, by Twitter and Facebook and Google and the internet and everything else, had a vision of what their life could be like if they had the opportunity to break out.

And so that’s what created the revolution. It’s just that in the democracy that followed, the people who were most organized were the ones who were able to get people to the polls and win the election. But if they don’t deliver, if they don’t make the right choices and meet the aspirations of those young people, there will be another Tahrir Square, there will be another moment of confrontation. And people will fight for this opportunity that I believe connects every single one of us on this planet. So you’re on the cusp of that. Fulbrighters are on the cusp of that. And you have the privilege of coming to another country, of learning the culture, traveling.

I understand you were all out at Mount Vernon yesterday, and you got to see the home of the founder of our country, the first President, the person after whom this city is named. And I think you discerned for yourself that not everybody lived like that. (Laughter.) But we obviously are really privileged and happy to welcome all of you here. I want you to have a fantastic time. This is a great seminar. We’re proud to host it on a regular basis. And I hope that you’ll leave here fired up and charged up and ready to engage in the public affairs of your country, wherever that may be, or in some public endeavor to help to try to hold all of us accountable to living up to the aspirations that we do all share.

Teddy Roosevelt had a wonderful statement about – I’ll just paraphrase it, but sort of how the credit – he was talking about life and what matters, and he said: The credit belongs to the man – and today he would amend that to be man or woman – but it belongs to the man who’s actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who knows the great devotions, the great enthusiasms, and who in trying to do something, if they fail, at least fails while trying and daring greatly. That’s what you have to do. Try. Try to make a difference. Go out there and care and be willing to risk the failure. And in the end, if you do that, we’re all going to find the common ground, and we’re going to improve the lot of a lot of people on the face of this planet.

So thanks for being here. It’s a privilege to say hello to you, and I look forward to seeing you along the trail of improving everybody’s life and governing. Fair enough? Thank you all. All right. (Applause.)

# # #

PRN: 2013/0301