May 20, 2007
I’m going to put away the lecture on global warming and talk about something else.
President Bridges, trustees, overseers, faculty, parents and friends, and especially graduates of the Class of 2007. What a joy it is for me to be here today. I am honored, and I am humbled. Today is called a commencement, but that’s not quite true. The Class of 2007 has already commenced. Commenced to show its leadership in the world. This is a class that has studied abroad, solved environmental problems in the Caribbean, won countless Fulbright scholarships, joined the Peace Corps and embarked on world-changing Projects for Peace as part of a highly prized and competitive nationwide effort. And you haven’t even gotten your diplomas yet.
World: Watch out for the Whitman Class of 2007. You’re going to change the world and much for the better.
Commencement is a celebration and an anniversary. Today will mark forever a momentous milestone in your lives. And 2007 is a fitting year for milestones, since you’ve joined some of the most important anniversaries in modern history. To start with, your class graduates on the 125th year of Whitman College. Congratulations to Whitman, a college that is stronger, prouder and more renowned than ever before.
2007 marks the 200th year of the end of the slave trade in the British Empire. The year 1807, an occasion when bright-minded moral leaders successfully prevailed upon the politicians and the economic vested interests to do the right thing. 2007 marks the 60th anniversary of the independence of India, the crowning achievement of Mahatma Gandhi, the most original and successful moral leader of the 20th century, the leader who inspired Martin Luther King and our own civil rights movement. 2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the independence of Ghana, the first African country to gain independence from European colonial rule. Ghana today is a vibrant, yet still very poor multiparty democracy. President John Kufuor is also the honored leader of the new African Union. And let’s not forget a crucial 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Paul McCartney has turned 64, and yes we still need him, and yes we’ll still feed him now that he’s 64.
But for today’s remarks, I want to mention especially another anniversary. In this case, the 60th anniversary of a Commencement address. George Marshall’s Commencement address at Harvard University when Secretary of State Marshall called on America to lead, specifically to lead the financial help to Europe, post-war Europe. What has come down in history as the Marshall Plan. Ahh, that was a Commencement address that truly changed the world. And the Marshall Plan continues to teach us how timely financial assistance from the rich to the needy can keep the peace and help unstable countries to achieve economic development and long-lasting democracies.
There is another Commencement address that changed the world and is, in fact, my favorite. And that is President John F. Kennedy’s Commencement address at American University in June1963. That speech not only changed the world but, perhaps, saved the world. It was a speech about peace and how to achieve it. It has profound lessons for us here today at Whitman College. John Kennedy spoke at a time of great peril to the world, the very height of the Cold War. Just months earlier, the world had stood at the very brink of nuclear annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. As was famously described, we were eyeball to eyeball with the Soviet Union. Within a blink of nuclear annihilation. History shows it was Kennedy’s steady hand, cool nerves and deep understanding of the common interest of humanity, which saved the day. Joined by the prudence of his counterpart Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Together they found a way out of the labyrinth of nuclear confrontation.
I suspect, indeed fear, that our leaders today would not have done the same. Our leaders were trigger-happy in Iraq when the risks weren’t real. President Kennedy found a way to peace when the risks were all too real. At the American University Commencement address, President Kennedy taught us a crucial lesson, one that I want to share with you today. Despite the fervor of the Cold War, with all the reasons for mistrust of the Soviet Union, President Kennedy asked us to look inward to find a way to peace. In his Commencement address, he called not on the Soviet Union, but on his fellow Americans to find that path to peace.
Here is what President Kennedy said, and I quote: “Some say it is useless to speak of world peace, or world law or world disarmament and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them to do it. But I also believe we must reexamine our own attitudes as individuals and as a nation. For our attitude is as essential as theirs. Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable. That mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man made, therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable. And we believe they can do it again.”
Kennedy didn’t offer a magic solution. Indeed, he said, and I quote: “There is no single, simple key to this peace. No brand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process, a way of solving problems.”
Kennedy then praised the Russian people and their many achievements in “science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.” He described how the Soviet Union and the United States shared a common interest in peace after having suffered the harrowing losses of World War II. Kennedy’s speech so impressed Nikita Khrushchev, that Khrushchev immediately called the U.S. envoy in Moscow, Averell Harriman, and said that Kennedy’s speech was the finest of any president’s since FDR. He told Harriman that he wanted to negotiate a nuclear test band treaty. Six weeks later, just six weeks after the speech, the treaty was signed in Moscow. The speech changed the course of the Cold War and helped to save the world.
Kennedy said that a genuine peace changes to meet the challenge of each new generation. What will be your generation’s challenge? Your generation will face the over-arching challenge of living in peace and sustainable prosperity on a crowded plant, today with 6.6 billion people and perhaps more than 9 billion by mid-century. When I was born, the global population was roughly half of today’s. And with much less interconnectedness and much less pressure of human activity on the earth’s climate and ecosystems.
Our generation has left you with a bit of a mess. President Bush’s sentiment that you are with us or against us is the opposite of what we need. As in 1963, we must look inward to make sure that our attitudes are compatible with peaceful co-existence on a crowded planet.
Specifically, your generation will face three great challenges. The first is the extreme gap between the rich and the poor, between the billion of us in the rich world and the billion at the bottom, in extreme poverty who struggle daily to stay alive. And with millions tragically losing that struggle every year.
The second challenge is the extreme threat of global environmental degradation, of climate change, water stress and the destruction of other species.
And the third is living in peace with China, India and the rising powers of the 21st century. Countries whose economic achievements will require that the United States live as one nation among many proud and powerful nations, not as a self-styled sole superpower.
Our generation has made promises to do all these things. In the run-up to our new millennium, the world’s leaders agreed on a series of major treaties and commitments. World leaders agreed to fight poverty, hunger and disease, according to the Millennium Development Goals agreed to in 2000 with targets to cut poverty, hunger and disease by the year 2015. World leaders agreed to fight climate change, the loss of biodiversity and decertification. World leaders agreed to work together to prevent nuclear proliferation. In all of these the rich countries, including the United States, took on a series of explicit responsibilities. We have not yet honored those promises. You don’t even hear about them from our leaders. It is as if they do not exist.
But they do exist. And honoring these millennium promises will be your generation’s greatest challenge. It will be your generation’s rendezvous with destiny. You will have to work across nations and cultures to fashion a true global society with shared values and shared commitments for common survival.
Let me give you the good news. You have the tools to succeed. We are rich enough, clever enough, scientifically advanced enough to end extreme poverty, to save the environment of earth, and to ensure shared prosperity around the world. And Whitman College has trained you for global leadership.
Consider just one example. Malaria will kill 2 billion children in Africa this year. Yet malaria is a largely preventable and wholly treatable disease. The problem is that Africans are too poor to purchase the insecticide-treated bed nets and medicines to keep their children alive. Yet, we can afford it, and how. Africa needs 300,000,000 bed nets to protect every sleeping site in the malarious zones of Africa. Each net costs $5 and lasts 5 years. Thus, and here comes some multiplication worthy of my Ph.D. in economics, it would cost us $1.5 billion to give all Africans five years of bed net protection. But $1.5 billion, ladies and gentlemen, is equal to one day’s Pentagon spending. For one day’s Pentagon spending we can protect Africa with anti-malaria bed nets for five years. We have choices in this world, and good ones. Here’s my proposal: Let the Pentagon take next Sunday off.
Now graduates, just one more thing, and then come your diplomas. I’m a professor, and you’re students. You have not quite graduated yet. I can still give you one more homework assignment, and here it is. I assign you to end extreme poverty by the year 2025. The mid-term exam is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015. But don’t despair, this is an open book assignment, and you can — and indeed must — work in groups.
This is an assignment for which you can all get honors because it is an assignment — indeed, the assignment — that can unite the world. In the end there should be no us versus them. There should only be us together, united for the common purposes of humanity. Here’s how John Kennedy said it — perhaps the most moving and peace-affirming words of any modern president — and I quote: “So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved, and if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future, and we are all mortal.”
Graduates you are on your way to great accomplishments, to building a safer and fairer world. Our hearts are with you. We are swelled with pride, and we are confident in your future. Congratulations and thank you so much for the high honor you’ve given to me of allowing me to share this wonderful day with you.