Madeleine K Albright

Commencement Address at UC San Diego - June 15, 2019

Madeleine K Albright
June 15, 2019— San Diego, California
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Chancellor Khosla, UC regents, distinguished faculty and trustees, honored guests, members of the class of 2019 – good morning.

I want to begin by thanking you very much for the medal, which I will cherish. And thank you as well for inviting me to share with you this very exciting day, even if I'm merely a warm-up act for your remarkable student speaker, Michaela Juels.

It's not every day that I speak to such a large audience or in a setting such as this. I actually feel as though I should have brought a guitar or a soccer ball, but as a professor and a mother of three college graduates, I have to confess that I love graduations. It's a day for parents to marvel at just how short the interval is between diapers and diplomas, and for graduates it's the payoff for all the exams, the hard work, and the late nights in that spaceship known as Geisel Library.

I know that many of you are experiencing mixed emotions. For those who were sad to be leaving this beautiful campus, I would offer you this quote attributed to a beloved member of this community, your library's namesake, Dr. Seuss, and I quote, "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."

This is a time to celebrate, for graduation is truly one of the five great milestones of life, the others being birth, death, marriage and the day you finally pay off your student loans.

I feel particularly privileged to participate in a commencement at this university, one of the most dynamic and fast-growing on the West Coast. You can now applaud.

Driving as I did yesterday, you cannot miss the major transformation taking place. Clearly UC San Diego is focused on the future, and this is reflected in the courses you offer, the students you attract, the exchanges you conduct and the values of tolerance, mutual respect and social mobility with which you are identified.

You've been among our nation's leaders in equipping students with expertise in cutting-edge technology. You are justifiably proud of the fact that 4 in every ten students is the first in their family to attend college. And you also have one of our country's finest International Relations programs.

This outward and upward orientation is vital because the class of 2019 will live global lives. You will compete in a global workplace, shop in a global marketplace and travel further and more often than any prior generation.

Of course, the world was a lot different when I was in college, which was about halfway between the invention of the iPad and the discovery of fire. Back then, I had one basic ambition and this was to be accepted. As an immigrant, I didn't want to stand out. I wanted to fit in.

Fortunately in the 1950s, conformity was encouraged. I attended Wellesley at a time when we were all expected to become young ladies. When we enrolled, we each had to pose for what they called a "posture picture" to see whether we had, and I quote, "an understanding of good body alignment and the ability to stand well."

The thing is, that we were not allowed to wear any clothing above the waist and they actually graded the pictures and if we flunked they made us do exercises. We always wondered what happened to all those pictures, until some years ago they were discovered in a vault at Yale.

While attending Wellesley, I learned much that I have since forgotten about European philosophers, classical authors and dissected frogs.

But I also learned a lot about myself – that I wanted to use the knowledge I had acquired for something more meaningful than just table conversation. I wanted to test, not simply accept the limits and boundaries, of the life I was preparing to lead. And I wanted to give something back to this country that had given so much to me.

I suspect the same is true for you and your experiences here at UC San Diego. You've learned a lot about the world outside of you, but you've learned a lot about what is inside you as well.

And this is important because from this day forward you will have to rely not on grades or guidance from professors to tell you how you're doing or where you stand. You will have to rely instead on an inner compass, and whether that compass is true will determine whether you become a drifter who's blown about by every breeze or a doer determined to chart your own course and unafraid when necessary to set sail against the strongest wind.

And as I look around this morning at the class of 2019, I have to tell you that I see that you are all doers, which is good because in the years to come there will be much for you to do, both here at home and overseas.

At home, America's great challenge will be to retain a sense of community and common purpose. As today's graduates reflect, we are a diverse people.

When I was little, my father was the Czechoslovakia ambassador to Yugoslavia and I was the little girl in the national costume that gave flowers at the airport. That's what I did for a living. So I grew up highly conscious of ethnic distinctions and I learned the history of Czechoslovak nation that had maintained its cohesion despite three centuries of foreign domination.

We're all proud of the distinctions that give us our separate identities and loyal to the groups to which we belong. This kind of solidarity is a means of honoring ancestors and a way to inspire the young. It makes us feel less alone and helps us to find for ourselves a unique place in a crowd.

But there's also a danger, because when pride in us curdles into hatred of them, the American tapestry unravels and the social fabric is torn. The result may be a shooting at a synagogue in Poway, only 20 miles from here, or attacks against members of the LGBTQ community at a nightclub in Orlando. It may be the surge in racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, or the near-constant terror of shootings in American classrooms.

We're blessed to live in a country whose very identity and purpose are wedded to respect for humanity. But sometimes we have to ask, after all the tragedies we've seen, after all the times and have said never again, what will it take for us to realize that however important the difference is that distinguishes us may be, they're nothing compared to that common humanity that binds us.

And we are wedded to that respect and all who comprise it. And that's why this university's commitment to attracting and supporting students of all backgrounds, including military veterans and underrepresented minorities, should be commended always and often.

No matter our race or creed, we are all equal shareholders in the American Dream. And living up to that principle and valuing fairly the contributions of each other is what UC San Diego's principles of community are all about. And it's the great test our nation must pass in the 21st century.

Around the world, we will face other tests, the outcome of which is equally uncertain.

Thirty years ago this November, the Berlin Wall fell down. Americans celebrated, but we also knew that the world might become more rather than less dangerous as a result. In the years that followed, that fear was validated by the revival of ethnic strife, the increased destructiveness of international terror, the spread of advanced weapons technology and the emergence of leaders whose slogans echo the siren song of fascism.

Meanwhile, the information revolution created a new linkage among events that is both instantaneous and global, and as a result what happens anywhere now matters everywhere, often very soon.

Still, there are many in Washington and around the country who think of our country as an island. They believe we are unaffected by events across the far side of the sea and that we can build walls to keep problems at bay. They refuse to accept that America's interests are linked to the security and prosperity of neighbors allies and friends. And they do not understand that our global leadership carries with it both tangible benefits and enormous responsibilities.

We have long passed the time in our history when we could count on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to guarantee our security, when we could protect our interests by maintaining a few key relationships, principally in Europe, and when we could safely take a reactive approach to most events in most places most of the time.

Our era demands a dynamic approach that recognizes the global nature of our interests, adapts to the emergence of powerful new players on the world stage and recognizes the fact that we face a slew of challenges, from climate change to terrorism to migration, that cannot be addressed without cooperation among countries.

While there are some communities across the country who may be able to ignore these realities, San Diego is not one of them. You are home to some of the largest military installations in the country, with thousands of sailors and Marines stationed here, many of them preparing to deploy on the missions across the Pacific. Your future depends on the expansion of commerce in fast-growing regions of the world such as Asia, and yet that future is threatened by the prospect of economic and military conflict, whether in the South China Sea or the Strait of Hormuz.

You are also only a dozen miles from our southern border, where there is a humanitarian crisis made far worse by the indifference of this administration to the desperate plight of migrants from Central America.

On these challenges and others….

I am going to interrupt myself to do my immigrant moment, which is…one of the things I love to do is to give naturalization certificates to new citizens. And the first time I did it was July 4, 2000, at Monticello, Jefferson's home. Since I had his job I thought I could do that. So I gave this man his naturalization certificate and as he's walking away he says, "Can you believe it? I'm a refugee and I have just gotten my naturalization certificate from the secretary of state." And so I went after him and I said, "Can you believe that a refugee is secretary of state?" That is why we need to care.

On these challenges and others, your generation faces a moment of choice. Will we treat foreign policy is a dog-eat-dog struggle in which no one gains except at another's cost, or will we carry the banner for international cooperation? Will we honor the principles upon which our freedom is based, or will we try to seal ourselves off from the ailments of the world?

Here at UC San Diego, institutions such as the School of Global Policy and Strategy with its emphasis on Asia and the Americas are equipping you to be active participants in shaping a better world and building a true Pacific community. In that effort, no bilateral relationship will matter more than the one between the world's two largest economies – the United States and China.

But as many of you prepare to enter or re-enter the workforce, our countries are in the midst of an active trade war and at the beginning of a much more significant technology standoff. There are also heightened tensions over a whole host of security and human rights issues.

Having studied and worked on U.S-China relations for more than 40 years, I am well aware of the complexities of this relationship and its evolution from constructive engagement to strategic competition. But I also believe that the benefits which the United States, China and the world together have worked to build this relationship for the past 40 years outweigh the challenges we face today in managing it.

We have to make this relationship work, even if the nature of it continues to change. This doesn't mean that we will always agree, because we won't. It doesn't mean that we should retreat from basic principles or abandon cherished values, because we shouldn't. It does mean that we should try to build and act upon a positive vision for the United States and Asia. We should endeavor to reduce, manage and stabilize areas of friction and to identify as many possibilities for productive collaboration as we can.

To that end, our leaders are more likely to act wisely if the American and Chinese people continue to learn about each other, communicate with each other and study with one another. And that is why international education is so important.

And that's why I applaud UC San Diego for welcoming students from China and so many other countries to the United States, while encouraging its students to study abroad around the world.

The writer H.G. Wells concluded years ago that history is a race between education and catastrophe. I would amend and say that history is a race between catastrophe and the right kind of education. And in the arena of world affairs, the right kind of education is one that reminds us of the dangers of defining our interests too narrowly.

Today America has an interest in the stability and well-being of all Asia and Latin America and Africa and Europe, and that's why we sometimes get involved in places that are far away from our shores.

When I was secretary of state, we were criticized for that. People would ask, "Why do you care about peace and democracy in places like East Timor and Haiti Sierra Leone and Mozambique? Aren't these countries too small and too poor to affect the United States? And after all, they don't have missiles that can attack us or oil they can sell us or markets that can enrich us." And I would say, "You are asking the wrong questions."

Earlier this week, I was honored to travel to Pristina, Kosovo, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of NATO's mission to halt ethnic cleansing there. I will never forget walking down the streets as thousands waved American flags and said, "USA! USA!" and shouted, "God bless America!" We had the opportunity 20 years ago to make a difference in Kosovo and I'm proud that we did. And my only regret is that we not did not do more earlier to stop the war in Bosnia and halt genocide in Rwanda.

Today, America should be unafraid to exercise leadership and support of peace in defense of liberty and further justice. But we must at the same time realize that we can rarely succeed simply by going it alone.

Americans don't like the word "multilateralism." It has too many syllables and it ends in an ism. But it basically means that we work with others and that we work with those and heed our views and follow our lead. We have to listen to the concerns of others.

We must listen to allies who ask us to engage with our adversaries through diplomacy rather than beating the drums of war. We must listen to scientists who say that climate change is real and a grave threat to our future, those who believe that conservation is a national security imperative not a four-letter word. And we must listen to those who argue the globalization should not lead to so many people feeling left behind.

In my life, I have had the good fortune to travel almost everywhere and I have found that there are essentially three categories of countries in the world. In the first, people work all day and still don't have enough to eat. In the second, families are able to scrape together just enough food to meet their basic needs. In the third category of countries, diet books are bestsellers.

Confronted with this hard truth, some people simply shrug their shoulders and say it's too bad but there isn't anything that anyone can do about it. I say such unfairness is intolerable and we each have a responsibility to change it.

There was a time when we could say that we didn't know enough or didn't have the resources, but today there can be no doubt that if we only would so choose we could produce enough food, build enough shelter, deliver enough medicine and share enough knowledge to allow people everywhere to live better and more productive lives.

To the class of 2019, let me say that I don't intend this morning to put all of it on your shoulders – that will always be your parents' job – but I do hope that each of you will use the knowledge gained here at this university to be more than a consumer of liberty but also a defender and an enricher of it, employing your talents to heal help and teach.

You don't have to travel halfway around to do that. You can and should start right in this community. And all you have benefited by the presence here in San Diego of so many people from so many different corners of the earth. I hope you will use that experience to be doers not drifters and that you will choose to live life boldly, with largeness of spirit and generosity of heart.

It is said that all work that is worth doing is done in faith. This morning, at this ceremony of celebration and anticipation, I hope you will each embrace the faith that every challenge surmounted by your energy, every problem solved by your wisdom, every soul awakened by your passion and every barrier to justice brought down by your determination will ennoble your own lives, inspire others and explode outward the boundaries of what is achievable on this earth.

So to the class of 2019, I say again, congratulations and thank you so much for making me a part of your family. Congratulations to all of you.