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Commencement Address at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs

Author: Thomas E. Donilon, Distinguished Fellow
May 22, 2014
Council on Foreign Relations


Dean Janow, distinguished faculty, families, guests and most important, graduates: Congratulations to the Class of 2014!

Thank you for giving me the honor of sharing this special occasion with you. I have spent much of the past five years dealing with considerably darker corners of the world – war zones, natural disasters, Washington DC – so it's terrific to be here in Manhattan on such a happy day, so full of joy and promise.

In preparing to speak, I spent some time studying the make-up of your class. You are truly a remarkable and diverse group of young leaders. Frankly, I'm tempted just to stand up here and read your resumes out loud. I suspect that would be more inspiring than anything I might say today from this podium.

More than half of this class comes here from outside the United States, and you have brought with you a wonderfully rich mix of backgrounds and outlooks. By my count, you represent 66 countries -- more than a third of the countries in the world. Your class is a virtual United Nations. So if you were even half as much of a Model UN nerd as I was, this must be paradise.

More than half of you are women. My wife, Cathy Russell, is the United States Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues, and I would not be allowed home tonight if I failed to take note of that powerful arithmetic. It's terrific news for the policy profession. I have worked with some of the nation's most extraordinary women during my time in government, and I am confident that in the years ahead, the women of this class will be heading tables at state dinners, at negotiations, and in boardrooms.

But we still have a long way to go. Today, the average share of parliamentary seats held by women around the world is barely over 20 percent. We need that to get closer to the percentage of women in this graduating class. Equality is not just a moral good – it makes the societies and nations that embrace it wiser, stronger, and more prosperous.

Twenty-one of you have served in the U.S. military. Thank you, and thanks to your families, for your service to our nation. Many more of you have committed to other types of service – as volunteers, as mentors, as organizers. Even if the results of your devotion haven't yet made headlines, you should never doubt that you have made a difference.

And graduates, although this is your day, you know how much you owe your families and friends. They have rooted for you and comforted you, cheered you up and talked you down. They have been on this difficult journey with you every step of the way. I know how very proud they are of you. Please join me in a round of applause to recognize them.

For me, the privilege of being up here is especially great — knowing the contributions Columbia and SIPA have made to the fields of international relations, economics, and development. As National Security Advisor, I found myself forever in search of fresh ideas. And for decades, this institution has spawned ideas that have changed how we view the world.

One of my predecessors, Zbigniew Brzezinski, rose to prominence here in Morningside Heights. And you may know that my boss for the last few years was a certain Columbia alumnus by the name of Barack Obama. I learned every day – the hard way – that Columbia grads can make tough supervisors.

You can now leave SIPA confident that you've learned from the best. You've worked with the giants of international relations, professors like Richard Betts, Bob Jervis, and Stephen Sestanovich; scholars with deep insight into international economics and development, like Joseph Stiglitz, Jagdish Bhagwati, Jeff Sachs, and your dean Merit Janow; and those with firsthand knowledge of policymaking, like my former colleague Jason Bordoff, whose new Center on Global Energy Policy could not have launched at a more crucial time.

Class of 2014, you are here today because you've chosen to pursue careers in public affairs and policy. There are many different possible paths ahead of you – in the public and private sectors, in non-profits and think tanks, as scholars and as activists. You can perform exceptional service and have a tremendous impact from all these places. And I encourage you to spend time working in as many of them as you can. But I especially hope that at some point, your journey will lead you to put your talents to use in the public sector.

Some of your relatives in the audience may disagree. I know you have to face a lot of questions and quizzical looks. After all, why consider serving in government when in the United States, for example, Congress's approval rating is in the celllar, when we lurch from crisis to crisis, and when filibusters, gridlock, and shutdowns have become the new normal?

I recall a conversation I had a few years back with my son Teddy, who was then 9. I was preparing to leave the law firm where I was a senior partner and join the Obama administration for my third tour in government. My son approached me and said, "Dad, I hear you're going to go back into the government." I said, "Yes, Teddy, that's correct." He said, "Dad, I hear that in the government you work more hours and make less money." I said, "Yes, Teddy, that's correct." And without missing a beat, he asked, "What's the matter with you!?!"

My son is not alone in his doubts. A poll last month showed that young people in the United States have "historically low" levels of trust in public institutions. Another survey showed that while your peers deeply want to serve their country, they feel volunteer organizations and charities offer a better platform for doing so than government.

This is not just a popular perception. I'm sure you've all come across the scholarly commentary that governments are becoming less effective and relevant and that non-state actors are filling the gaps.

But I don't see the world that way. One of my roles in the White House was to deliver the President's Daily Briefing. Beginning on January 20, 2009 — and continuing each morning for the next four and a half years — I spent the first hours of every day digesting stacks of intelligence reports and other information from around the world, which I then distilled into a presentation to the President on the greatest threats facing our nation. Over time, this must have given me a permanent scowl, because every time I walked into the Oval Office, President Obama came to nod in my direction —and say, "Here comes the grim Irishman..."

If I looked serious, it was because I felt like I was serving not just one boss but 313 million bosses. I never lost sight of what my job was, which was to make sure our government was doing everything in its power to help keep us safe.

That experience, over the course of hundreds of briefings, served to underscore this key point: When governments make decisions, there's nothing abstract about it. Policy matters — indeed, policy matters today as much as it ever has.

Now, it is true that the context in which government operates has changed. The exponential growth of new technologies has empowered more people in more places, challenging entrenched players in politics, business, and culture. And there has been a diffusion of power to people and institutions outside of government.

When I began my first government job in 1977, as a 22 year old aide to President Carter, there were only three broadcast networks and news wasn't news until Walter Cronkite said it was. Today, 140 characters tapped out in Cairo or a photo snapped in Kiev can reverberate across the world in an instant. A fruit vendor in a small Tunisian city can inspire protests from Mexico to the Maldives. The iPhone in your pocket has more processing power than NASA used to land on the moon.

These liberating technologies have created a demand for immediate communication. Policymakers are now expected to respond to events of every sort, everywhere, as soon as they happen. And they know that every word they utter will be read around the globe in an instant. In the White House, this relentless pressure presented the constant risk of distracting us from crafting long-term strategies.

Meanwhile, in this increasingly interconnected world, the issues that affect the citizens of any one country are often beyond what their government can control. That can make those citizens understandably frustrated.

So yes, these new realities do complicate the job of policymakers. But they have not rendered policymaking a lost art.

From my vantage point, I have seen the impact that governments and policy have. Governments can marshal the resources necessary to address globe-spanning problems. Governments negotiate trade agreements, make economic policy, and educate children. Governments invest in the scientific research that has spawned some of our most cherished technologies. Governments address all manner of threats to the personal security and safety of their citizens, whether from terror, cyber attacks, or diseases. And governments build the infrastructure that allows economies to grow.

Of course, this tremendous potential must be guided by intelligent policy and sure-footed policymakers. While wise policies have lifted people out of poverty, prevented world wars, and eradicated diseases, bad policies can erase fortunes, enable injustice, and condemn innocent people to senseless deaths.

Even good policy choices may not look that way in the moment. The outcomes aren't perfect, and they rarely give us instant gratification or immediate results.

But the world you enter as graduates today is safer, more prosperous, more tolerant, and freer than ever before. And that is a direct result of important policy choices over the last several decades. You are in a high-impact profession. As President Obama reminded us while visiting Southeast Asia last month, "If you had to choose when to be born, not knowing where or who you would be, in all of human history, now would be the time."

Consider the long-term trends. First, the world has become much wealthier. The average global income has never been higher. A global middle class has emerged, and by 2030 it is expected to encompass 5 billion people – that will be nearly two thirds of the world's population.

We are also witnessing the fastest reduction ever in global poverty – from 1990 to 2010, the number of people in developing countries living in extreme poverty was cut in half. That's nearly a billion fewer people forced to live each day on $1.25 or less. And it happened five years earlier than envisioned by the UN's Millennium Development Goals – an ambitious anti-poverty campaign championed by your very own Jeff Sachs. Today our goal is making sure that the remaining billion living in extreme poverty make it out in the next fifteen years.

Second, we have made enormous progress confronting our greatest public health challenges, and people are living longer and healthier lives than ever. The average global lifespan has been extended to lengths your grandparents' generation would have thought impossible. Since 1990, child mortality rates have been cut in half. And we are winning the fight against many of the worst infectious diseases on Earth.

Third, the world is less violent than at any point in memory. For centuries, geopolitics was defined by bloody struggles between the great powers. We have not seen anything like that since World War II. And in the last 20 years, without minimizing the horrible conflicts that have occurred, wars have become less common and less deadly.

And democracy has expanded with great speed. Since the end of the Cold War, during the lifetime of most of you in this class, the number of electoral democracies crafting their own policies has nearly doubled, from 69 to 118.

All these advances have different causes, and some of them are broad trends that can seem beyond our ability to influence as individuals. But any account of this progress would be woefully incomplete if it did not include the role of wise policy. New ideas and technologies need to be harnessed and directed — aimed at socially responsible objectives. Government can do that in ways no other entity can.

At the same time, reckless decisions by governments are the x-factor that holds the greatest potential to unravel all this progress. We may not agree about what policies are the best at promoting economic growth, but we know the North Koreans are doing it wrong. We may debate exactly why Europe has avoided major wars for the last 70 years, but we know that Russia's recent actions in Ukraine are dangerous.

So these positive trends are as fragile as they are remarkable. And it would be exceedingly perilous, in a world run by humans, to assume that progress is inexorable. Indeed, there are a number of dynamics at play today which could take us back in the wrong direction. They include renewed tensions among the great powers, the resurgence of nationalism and territorial disputes in Asia, an evolving and still serious terror threat, the prospect of resource competition, and others. A clash over small disputed islands in the Pacific could undo the painstaking work that has gone into sustaining Asia's economic miracle. Our failure to take bipartisan action on America's domestic challenges, from broken infrastructure to deficient school systems, could hamper this country's ability to lead on the world stage. And a world without determined U.S. leadership would be one in which global progress is most threatened.

The bottom line is that no development in international affairs – good or bad – happens automatically. Global politics is not a subset of physics. There are no perfect laws of history that can predict how countries will interact.

And so the things we value most in this world – peace, progress, social justice, economic development – all depend on smart and dedicated people like you taking up the mantle of leadership and applying your insights to service.

I'm told that every commencement address requires some advice from the speaker. So here's mine:

Most of you are passing today from lives inside the academy to exciting paths outside of it. As you make that transition, I'd urge you to never stop being a student. Do not stop learning. Do not stop exploring.

In the years ahead, you may find yourself in demanding professional positions, some of which will require deep but narrow expertise. You have or will start families. But no matter what, schedule the time in a structured way to continue your engagement with the policy issues that you are passionate about. Continue to expand and extend the skills you have acquired at SIPA. Be ready when the moment comes for you to make a difference.

Lifelong learning will be especially important for your generation. Surveys show that your peers expect each of their jobs to last less than 3 years. That means some of you will have 10 or more jobs over the course of your lives. And that kind of change requires adaptability and constant striving for self-improvement.

Throughout my career, the single most important thing I have done to further my own education has been to study history. A policymaker should read history often, read it obsessively, and re-read it. History can tell us what really motivates leaders and how the past informs their current views. It's impossible to understand, for example, the current crisis in Ukraine or today's tensions in East Asia without a clear sense of how we got to this point.

U.S. policymakers are especially weak in their knowledge and appreciation of history. Americans sometimes dismiss things by saying "that's history." But the world doesn't actually work that way. I think William Faulkner was right when he said "the past is never dead – it isn't even past." With your diverse backgrounds and global perspectives, you already know this better than most people.

Graduates, the education you have received here is an enormous gift. It puts you in a position to lead. But all the prestigious degrees in the world are no substitute for working hard, honing your skills, and keeping yourself sharp.

You should leave here today with tremendous confidence in your ability to lead an interesting life and to have a big impact. That's because policy matters, the choices you make matter, and your talents have never been more in demand. All I ask is that you invite me to your tenth reunion.

Thank you very much and congratulations to the SIPA class of 2014.

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