Madeleine K Albright

Columbia School of International and Public Affairs Commencement Address - April 28, 2021

Madeleine K Albright
April 28, 2021— Virtual
Print friendly

Dean [Merit] Janow, members of the Class of 2021, and your loved ones. I'm so pleased to help you commemorate this landmark moment in your lives.

As a former student and current professor, I have always loved commencement ceremonies, especially the awarding of diplomas, the lovely music and the multicolored academic robes. And what could be better than when the diploma and the robes are from Columbia? As you can see, I never miss an opportunity to wear mine.

I regret, after this most harrowing of years, you're not able to celebrate in person. I speak for all in hoping that we are now on the path to recovery. And we will soon return not simply to normalcy, but to a renewed sense of optimism about freedom and justice worldwide. In that spirit, I offer my congratulations to this year's graduates for a job well done.

Even though many of you already have embarked on your professional careers, earning a degree from SIPA is a major milestone. This is when you move from the long years of rehearsal and preparation to the prime time of doing.

Now I've given a listen to enough graduation speeches to know that every speaker says that the graduating class will inherit a complicated world. But in your case, it is really true. The obstacles to be overcome include economic disruptions caused by the virus, the looming catastrophe of climate change, the threats posed by cyber pirates and terrorists, a viper's nest of regional conflicts, and fueling them all, the unwelcome return of hypernationalism.

In recent years, many heads of government have abandoned the idea of global cooperation, and instead insisted on going it alone. They argued that interdependence is but an illusion, a theory cooked up by a foreign-policy think tank to undermine national sovereignty, and cause citizens to betray their own countries and identities.

In many places, democracy is in decline, and diplomacy is considered obsolete. Slowly but surely, too many people have begun to lose faith in the ability of free people to make progress together.

This is not the first time such a cynical attitude has taken hold. It was also the case in the 1930s, the decade I was born. It led then, and with terrifying swiftness, to Holocaust and war. We must not let that happen again.

Fortunately, there is an alternative, which is where you and the remarkable education you have acquired at SIPA come in.

You have already been tested in a way that none of your predecessors have. You have shown the ability to deal with the unexpected and the unknown in a positive way, by developing new ways of communication, and by understanding that life is going to be different.

So with the lessen of the pandemic fresh in our minds, you need to help all of us adapt and embrace a new reality, while rejecting the myths that are being peddled in too many places around the world.

For make no mistake, the cynics are wrong. Democracy, though imperfect, remains the best system of government ever invented. And the interdependence of peoples is not a fiction. What happens to any of us can affect all of us.

And that is why there is nothing unpatriotic about striving to solve problems across international borders. There is in fact no better way to serve one's country, and no better calling for you and your peers.

Having grown up fluent in technology, and with twenty-first century threats at the center of your thinking, you are better positioned than anyone to meet the challenges and seize the unlimited opportunities of the future.

And yet it is true that both democracy and diplomacy can be frustrating. Both require that we re-examine our own assumptions, listen carefully to opposing views, and accept compromises that may be less than popular.

You are no strangers to frustration, and there is scarcely a peril your generation will face that cannot be eased through effective joint action involving democracies and countries willing to partner with them.

In saying this, I emphasize that defending freedom and building bridges among nations are duties, not just for government. As secretary of state, I turned for advice to scholars, business people, labor leaders and activists of every description.

And I learned every day of the connections that exist between education and smart choices on the environment, between equal rights for women and the reduction of poverty, between socially responsible investments and the creation of jobs, and between support for democratic values and the building of sustainable peace.

Even 20 years after leaving office, I find that I am still learning, most of all from the students I encounter in virtual classrooms and election halls. I'm reminded all the time of the words of the poet Robert Frost, who once wrote, "The older I get, the younger are my teachers."

What you, my teachers, instruct me today is that progress is in the work of many hands, and Zooms, and that is why there is no limit to what we might be able to accomplish on a globe where cooperation and shared learning are present at all levels.

But if we abandon that hopeful vision, we will see every issue through the lens of the demagogue and live as prisoners of fear.

Members of the class of 2021, I am now in my ninth decade on Earth. I've seen too much suffering to be naive, too much decency to despair, and more than enough surprises to want money back on my crystal ball.

Ultimately, our lives boil down to choices based on partial knowledge, mixed motives and qualities inside of us which we ourselves not always fully are aware of.

The good news is that we have the power to choose. We also have the power to change. So when the cynics tell us that our ideals are out of date, we will reply that the future is ours to shape and it is their choice whether to come along or step aside.

My friends, I have no desire today to place all of the world's problems on your shoulders. But that is exactly where they are about to land.

If I were meeting in person, I would urge you to look for inspiration to those seated right next to you, your fellow graduates, and to have confidence that no matter how hard the struggle, you will have the best of company along the way. Though we are apart, I still have faith that you will lift each other up and keep each other strong.

The past year has been a time of testing for us all. But it has also been a period of growing and becoming. It has reminded us that democracy is fragile, but also very resilient. And so are you.

Ahead of you now is another set of tests even more severe, even more important. The question arises, Are you equal to the challenge? I know that you are.

Good luck, and go get 'em.

Columbia SIPA. (2021, May 3). SIPA Graduation 2021: Madeleine Albright [Video]. YouTube.