Richard C. Holbrooke
Thank you so very much Mark and everyone here at Hobart and William Smith. This is, as you surely can tell by the comments that Mark Gearan just made, a very big occasion for me personally. I last was here 13 years ago, sitting out there in the bleachers with the parents, a proud Hobart dad. And finally today, I can say that I've graduated from Hobart dad to Hobart and William Smith grad.
No longer can my son David say, "I'm a Statesman and you're not." No longer can he say, "I've had chicken wings at Uncle Joe's and you haven't." Because the first thing we did yesterday as we drove in from Rochester was stop at Uncle Joe's, where he showed me where he'd conducted most of his academic research.
I asked David for a list of things he missed and things he didn't miss at Hobart. And he hasn't yet come quite clean, but I did a lot of field research at the Crooked Rooster and elsewhere last night and I've got some of the list here.
He doesn't miss the lake in winter. He doesn't miss the mosquitoes in summer. And he definitely doesn't miss Genny Cream Ale and 8 a.m. classes. But he misses much more than he doesn't miss: Uncle Joe's of course, the sense of community which is very special and very strong here, the close interaction between the students and the faculty. His particular favorite, Professor Lee Quinby, who's here today. Lee is hiding somewhere over there, if you're looking for her. She's pretending she's just a visitor. She did hold her classes at Uncle Joe's and she gave a course on sexuality in American literature, which seemed to be one of an endless list of courses that David took in which the word sexuality was in the course title. I think he took every course here, including one by mistake in biology. But he did take every course on sexuality and, David…you're my boy.
I want to thank Lee Quinby and all her colleagues, some of whom are here today, for having given him such a great education and for making him such a perfect son. I'm just so proud to be up here today with all of you. I know that my pride in David is shared by all of you other parents out here who've watched your sons and daughters go through the Colleges here and will watch them graduate today--the parents of Lacy and Hiney, and of the other 411 people who will be getting their degrees today. Lacy and Hiney asked me to mention them.
I'm particularly proud to be part of the first Commencement of my friend Mark Gearan, who has had such a distinguished public career. He and I share a Peace Corps common bond. I'm sure you noticed that the middle part of his citation to me was actually an advertisement for the Peace Corps, and deservedly so. And I will return to that point in a minute.
But, I also recognize you didn't come here today to hear me. In fact, commencement speeches are probably the most dangerous speeches to give in America because I'm the last thing standing between you and the reason you're here--to get that diploma. But I do want to cite to you very briefly the best advice I ever heard anybody give in a commencement address. This is not original but I want you all to remember it carefully. Boys and girls, when you go out into life, it's not who you know, it's whom you know. Art Buchwald, asked to give a commencement address once, gave the following address in its entirety, "Boys and girls, your parents have given you a perfect world--don't screw it up."
Let me say a very brief word about one thing I do hope you take with you as you leave Geneva today, and that is what you can do with the part of your life that is not devoted to your own career and to your own family. And Mark Gearan illustrates that best--the combination of private and public roles that he's played throughout his career--and that is public service.
You don't have to go into the government when you graduate. Now, when I graduated from Brown at the height of the Kennedy era--I was an undergraduate at Brown when Kennedy gave his extraordinary inaugural address--when he asked us not to think of what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country. Today, you hear that sound byte on MTV before the commercials for a Diet Pepsi or something. And it's become just a cliché. But I can hardly express to you, although I'm sure your parents can remember this, the electric feeling generated when that was uttered live on television, as we watched the transition from the country's oldest president to its youngest president.
A lot of us went into public service. Some went into the Peace Corps, which was then a young and glamorous agency. And it now, thanks to people like Mark Gearan, is a thriving, continuous part of our nation's life, with more than 150,000 people having served and returning to bring their talents and knowledge to American society. Some of us went into the foreign service, as I did, and went directly to Vietnam. Others got on buses and went into the south as freedom marchers, risking their lives just as much as those who went to Vietnam. But there was a sense of public service. And then Vietnam, and Watergate, and the 80s really dissipated that.
I would hope that you give part of your life to something larger than yourself. It doesn't have to be overseas. It doesn't have to be in the government. The one big change between the Kennedy era and today is that the role of government has diminished and the role of private organizations, the so-called NGOs or non-governmental organizations, has increased. So if your public service is through a non-governmental organization, a community organization, that's fine too. But give something of yourself to some larger cause. We are too rich a country. We are too powerful and self-confident a country to be selfish. And sometimes we have been selfish lately.
Our foreign-aid budgets have dropped precipitously. The Peace Corps, because of Mark's skillful stewardship, is an exception. He grew it from 6,000 to 10,000 volunteers. But our foreign-aid budgets are a tiny portion of our national budget. And our overall budgets still are rather parsimonious in terms of what they do for disadvantaged Americans and disadvantaged people all over the world. We are fighting some fantastic battles now to get the bare minimum amount of money in order to make our contributions to the United Nations--to the peace-keeping efforts that we rarely participate in. But at a minimum, we should be willing to offer financial support. It's a tremendous battle. And I say this not in a partisan sense, because there are plenty of Republicans who support us and there are plenty of Democrats who don't.
I speak about it as a national imperative. A country as rich and as powerful as the United States should give something back to its own disadvantaged people and the people around the world. Now this is not always easy. And I will close with a brief digression, which is not a digression, about the part of the world which we must help and which is the most difficult to justify. And that is, of course, Africa. Now, why do I single out Africa? I'm going to talk about Africa for a minute before I close precisely because it's the hardest case to justify. And therefore the one we must address. Over and over again, I am told by people that Africa is hopeless. The problems are too enormous and we shouldn't waste our money there. And I respectfully disagree. It is true. There's no question that no continent in the world today faces more problems. No problems are more daunting. And to be quite frank about it, most of the leaders of Africa have not been worthy of the great charge that they have for the responsibility of their people.
There are important exceptions, like Presidents Mandela and Mbeki in South Africa, and like President Obasanjo in Nigeria. But today Africa is not a pretty sight. In the last three or four days, Rwanda and Uganda have been tearing each other's troops apart in a Congalese city that none of you have probably heard of called Kisangani. And we're trying to get U.N. peacekeepers in there. I am confronted time and time again by Americans, members of Congress and others, who say, "Why should we care if Rwandans and Ugandans kill each other in Kisangani?"
It's a fair question and we have to justify to the American taxpayers why we should care. The reason, it seems to me, is basic. If we don't pay attention to Africa, we don't devote some of our efforts to working with the veteran leaders of Africa to improve their lot, in the end the problems will come home. You can not draw a wall around a single continent. And this is equally true of Latin American and Asia, Central Europe and Russia. But I deliberately talk about Africa, not only because it's very much on our minds these days, but because I know from thousands of conversations over the last year that it's the hardest case. That we can not walk away from it.
In Africa today, AIDS is tearing the sub-continent, the lower half of Africa, apart. Should we ignore it? It is a daunting problem. Or should we commit our resources to it and try to slow it down and reverse it. I submit to you that we have no choice.
I ask you on this beautiful day here at Geneva, a Geneva I like much better that the one in Switzerland, which really is a tribute to empty words, hopeless negotiations, and overly well-fed international civil servants who don't live their jobs. This is the real Geneva. Although when Mark Gearan first called me and said, "Can you come to Geneva?" I thought it was the other one. But your lake is nicer.
You are the future. The people in the other Geneva really don't do what they're expected to do. And I hope that you all, whether you go into the government or whether you go full-time into public service or whether you go into business or academia, I hope whatever you do you will take with you the idea that you give part of your life to something larger than yourself and remember more than the cliché about how fortunate it is to be an American. That goes without saying.
It isn't enough to say America is the world's only superpower. We're No. 1. We won the Super Bowl. We're going to Disney World. You have to accept the fact that United States leadership role in the world confers upon all of us obligations. Those take time. They take money and sometimes they put young men and woman at risk. That is part of the obligations of leadership.
I congratulate you on joining that larger world, and I hope you will take into it the spirit that has brought you through four years here at Hobart and William Smith. Thank you so much for this honor.
Commencement address by Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
June 11, 2000