Strobe Talbott Commencement address

Strobe Talbott Commencement address

A Jesuit Education in a Globalized World

Image: Strobe Talbott Good morning, almost good afternoon, congratulations to all of you and thanks to my many new friends, Fr. Kelley, and another new friend, Dr. Kidd, and Fr. Allen, also thanks to my very old friend, and mentor, Fay Vincent, all of whom had something to do with bringing me here today.

I feel deeply, deeply honored. Also, I've got to add, particularly as I address those of you who have just become alumni of this institution, that I feel a little bit guilty as well. To get your degrees, you had to work for years. To get mine, all I had to do was fulfill the Woody Allen principle of life - which is just showing up.

But of course, that was only 90 percent of life, as far as Woody Allen was concerned. The other 10 percent is turning in your homework assignment, and that's what I'm going to do now.

Now I realize that on occasions like this, there is an injunction to keep a commencement address relatively short. I could make mine very short indeed, simply by saying, I agree with Sean Hayes, who has already spoken from this podium. Sean that applause is for you obviously, and not for me. Sean and I have more in common, even though we have never met, than the fact that we both hail from Dayton, Ohio. He has a worldview that he articulated to you, on which I cannot possibly hope to improve. But what I can perhaps do, is offer a little bit more perspective on the issues that he put before you.

Those of you who are graduating today have already, even though your lives have been relatively brief so far, seen an extraordinary transformation in the world. Even though you have been on this planet only for 22, or maybe a few more years than that, you have already seen the end of that division that prevailed in the world when you were born. You came onto this planet in the last years of that great ideological and geopolitical division, or schism, known as the Cold War. Yet that phenomenon, the Cold War, has been relegated to history. If you studied it here, you studied it in Prof. McFadden's history courses, not as current events the way people of my generation did.

You were 7 or 8 years old when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and with it the Iron Curtain. You were about 10 years old when the first President Bush went to the United Nations to assemble a great international coalition to expel the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, a victorious operation to which Major Donnelly contributed so much. And as we all know he went on contributing over the 12 years after that, and it's an honor for me to share the podium with him today. When you were in 8th grade, another president, Bill Clinton, the one that I worked for, led another grand coalition, also with the authorization of the United Nations, and that was to restore democracy in Haiti. In your freshman and sophomore years, American troops served side by side with troops from Russia, Ukraine, Poland and other former members of the Warsaw Pact in keeping peace in Bosnia and Kosovo.

So you've seen a lot of good news in your lives. You've also seen some just wars. But you have also witnessed, and survived, horror and tragedy. I'm sure that of the most vivid memories of your lives, none will stand out more, than that Tuesday morning, a cloudless day, balmy weather like this, in the autumn of your junior year, when the attack occurred on the Pentagon and on the World Trade Center. You'll always remember the mass that took place that afternoon, the vigil that night, the memorial service the following Friday. And then of course came an extraordinary demonstration of national will and resolve and of military retribution. President Bush sent our armed forces half a world away to bring down the regime in Afghanistan that had harbored the terrorists who had attacked us. And he did that with the backing of virtually the entire civilized world.

That brings me almost up to the present - which is to say - the war in Iraq. In Baghdad, as in Kabul, the target of our bombs was a vile and dangerous regime of which the world is well rid.

But this time, of course, there was a difference.

This time - unlike in the first Gulf War, unlike in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan - our president felt it necessary to act without the United Nations, and without the backing of much of the rest of the world, including many of our closest allies. Now there are many reasons that the U.N. system broke down and that NATO ended up on the sidelines of that conflict. Some of those reasons are to be found in Washington, others in Paris, others in the shortcomings of the two institutions themselves - that is the United Nations and NATO. There was a lot of debate around the world, around the country. I know that there was a lot of debate on this campus, including teach-ins sponsored by the Ignatian Residential College and the International Studies program. And much of that debate was focused on whether that war was necessary at all. And some of the debate, particularly in my view the most germane part of the debate, was whether that war could have been, and therefore should have been, mounted with more international support and participation than in fact was the case.

But that debate belongs to the past, and what might have been. There is another debate that lies ahead. And it's about what kind of foreign policy the United States is going to have during your lifetimes. The issue might be put this way: Is the United States going to continue to be a powerful member of a vast collaborative effort that reinvents the world for the better through treaties, alliances and international institutions? Or is it going to see itself, as some suggest and advocate, as an empire?

Let me put the matter even more starkly: Is the United States going to be a leader, whom others follow because they want to, or is it going to be a boss, who others follow because they have to? Now your generation is going to have at least as much to do, with your parents' generation, your teachers' generation, my generation, in answering that question. Because this issue is not going to be resolved in coming months or years. It's going to be with us for a long time. And my real point for you this afternoon, is that from what I know of the education that you have received here at Fairfield University, you are extraordinarily well-prepared to help us as a nation and a world, come up with the right answer to those questions.

Now, I say that from the vantage point of a visitor to this campus, in more than one respect. I'm not from around here, religiously speaking. My roots are in the Episcopal Church, which, as you know from Dr. Thiel's course on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, makes me a transatlantic cousin of the Anglicans. And that puts me, or at least my forbears, in a somewhat uncomfortable position vis-à-vis your patron saint, Robert Bellarmine, whose books Queen Elizabeth the First prohibited her subjects from publishing or selling under pain of death. But never mind.

To borrow a little bit of folk wisdom from that famous advertisement for Levy's rye bread, you don't have to be a Catholic to admire the ethos of a Jesuit education. And that's clearly applause for a Jesuit education, not for me, and quite properly so. As I understand the values that have been inculcated into this institution and its graduates, one of the most important of those is the emphasis on service, as exemplified by Sister Mary Rose McGeady and Dr. Grayce Sills. I know that most of you who are graduating today have engaged in volunteer programs in soup kitchens, health centers and literacy programs. You've reached out from Fairfield, with all of its prosperity, to Bridgeport, with its poverty. And many of you have gone further afield than that - to Port-au-Prince, to Tijuana, to Quito. You've done so in the Jesuit tradition of international service.

In listening to the names of those who received degrees a few minutes ago, and also having the help of Dr. Kidd, who told me a little bit about the background of some of the students here, I appreciate that Fairfield University has opened itself to the world in both directions. You've taken people in from all parts of the world and you've sent your own people out to all parts of the world. What that means to me is that you've all been schooled in the simple truth that what happens there matters here, and vice versa, for better or for worse. And there can be Belarus, or Peru, or Korea, or Russia, or Serbia, but it matters to us. And that in a nutshell, is what the word globalization means.

Now one reason I wanted to work that word, globalization, into my remarks here today, is because somewhat to my surprise that word is out of fashion in some official circles. It's considered to be a soft concept. Why? I suppose because it implies the interdependence of global politics, and therefore the extent to which the United States and its fate depends on what happens in other countries and what policies other countries follow.

But globalization, in my view, is not a policy preference. It's a fact of life. And Jesuits, of course, were among the original globalizers, long before that word was invented. Saint Francis Xavier and those who followed him went to the far ends of the earth not just to teach but to learn - not just to preach but to listen - not just to convert but to absorb and appreciate - and not so much to dominate as to lead, by example and by suasion. In that sense, they helped to bring about what has now come to be called the international community. But that too, ladies and gentlemen, is a phrase that is a bit out of favor in the city where I live, Washington D.C. That phrase "international community" today has a ring about it in some circles of being soft.

In fact, there is a strongly held and ascendant view that there is no such thing as an international community; that to believe otherwise is a snare and a delusion; that it's not a community out there in the big wide world, rather it's a jungle, a vast expanse of badlands; and that America's preeminence and invincibility comprise the only reliable and effective force for order, safety, justice and freedom. Whether that's true or not is one of the key questions on which you will make up your own minds as you participate in the great debate that lies ahead. In making up my mind, I adduce some support from a Catholic document promulgated almost exactly 40 years ago: Pope John the 23rd's encyclical "Pacem in Terris." It's a ringing endorsement of the idea that humanity shares a common creation, a common destiny and common responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities is to respect the diversity of views, cultures and interests represented by the myriad countries, large and small, around the world. Which, of course, is one reason why of all the world's religions, only the Catholic Church has a diplomatic service. To believe in diplomacy is to believe in the idea of an international community.

Finally, there is another theme that comes to my mind whenever I hear the word Jesuit - one of which I'm reminded whenever I enter into conversation with someone who has the initials S.J. after his name. It's an insistence on disciplined, independent, responsible use of human reason as the basis for action, behavior, ethical conviction and, indeed, faith. That value can translate into respect for pluralism, for dissent, for skepticism. Or, to put it differently, a healthy mistrust of too much certainty too hastily determined and too confidently asserted.

And I put that thought before you because of the prominence and resonance of a phrase in our political discourse these days, and that phrase is "moral clarity." That's a phrase, unlike globalization and international community, that is very much in fashion. And it's a powerful phrase. But just for that reason, it should inspire a degree of caution under any circumstances - and skepticism when it is used to trump, not to mention de-legitimize, questions that citizens might raise about their government's policies, or questions that good friends and allies of the United States might raise about the nature of American leadership and the uses of American power.

Morality, obviously, is good, and so is clarity.

Neither, however, is easy to attain in its own right; and in combination, they require a lot of hard mental work - and a lot of listening, respectfully, to the views of others.

Now I don't presume to know what opinions any of you hold on the matters that I touched on here in these remarks, except I guess I have some sense of what Sean's thinking is. But it's my impression that what all of you have learned here, and how you have learned it, predisposes you to probe, question, listen and above all think your way through the treacherous terrain of moral complexity before reaching the high ground of moral certainty.

That respect for intellectual rigor, in combination with a commitment to service and a belief in the existence of a global community, equips you to be good citizens of your country, whatever your country and if you're Americans, you're going to help our country be a good leader of the world. Thank you very much.

Posted On: 05-18-2003 10:05 AM

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