Madeleine Albright’s 2003 Address

Former U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, addressed the Class of 2003 and their friends and family members.

Thank you very much Chancellor Wrighton for your wonderful words of introduction and for the Honorary Degree, which I think I will get.

Chancellor Wrighton and the Board of Trustees, representatives of the 50th reunion class, distinguished faculty; fellow honorees, family, friends and members of the Class of 2003, good morning.

What a fabulous place. What a fabulous crowd. There are so many people here I feel like I should have brought a guitar or a baseball glove.

It reminds me of the time shortly after I became Secretary of State, when I was asked by the Baltimore Orioles to throw out the first baseball of the season. After my daughter told me I threw like a girl, I practiced for weeks and became so good that I am SURE my throw would have reached the catcher without bouncing if it hadn’t been for gravity. I never thought then that I would one day share a stage with a man who could defy gravity — Ozzie Smith. That is, Dr. Smith.

But commencements are designed to bring people together and I feel particularly privileged to participate in a commencement at this university, on the eve of your 150th anniversary year. Few academic institutions are as much a part of their community as Washington University is to St. Louis. This is reflected in the history you share, the community outreach you do, the facilities you make available and the values you teach. As a result, this University is a central part of the local scene.

But it is also part of the global scene because of its reputation for high standards, its Nobel Prize-winning faculty, and the ethnic and cultural diversity of its student body.

This outward orientation is appropriate because those of you who graduate today 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.

This is quite a contrast from when I was in college. The pace back then was not so fast. Our phones had cords, our mail had stamps, and we found the web not by clicking on a mouse but by dusting in the corners.

At the time, I myself had one basic ambition, and that was to be accepted. Having heard about my background as an immigrant, all I wanted to do was to fit in; not to stand out. Fortunately, in the 1950’s, conformity was encouraged.

I attended a women’s college, Wellesley, where 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, we were not allowed to wear any clothing above the waist. They actually graded the pictures, and if we flunked, they made us do exercises. We always wondered what happened to the pictures, until a few 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 much about myself and got a first-class education. But I wanted to use the knowledge I had acquired for something more meaningful than 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 and my family.

I suspect the same is true for you and your experiences here at Washington University. You have learned a lot about the world outside you. But you have learned a lot about what is inside you, as well. This is vital, because from this day forward you will have to rely not on grades or guidance from professors to tell you how you are doing and 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 is 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.

As we go through life, each of us must choose whether to live timidly and complacently, or to act with boldness and faith. Nations must make a similar choice as they move through history. And in our era, America is faced with an historic choice about the role it is to play in the world.

The strength of the United States is not in doubt. Our economy is the largest; our military the mightiest; our influence the most pervasive — not by a little, but by a lot. What is in doubt is how we intend to use our power.

A little more than half a century ago, an earlier generation of Americans faced this same question. They had emerged triumphant after battling perhaps the greatest evil our world has ever known only to be confronted by new dangers. America then stood alone in a damaged world, facing a rising Soviet empire and a devastated Europe. In the White House was a plainspoken man named Harry Truman — one of Missouri’s many great gifts to our country.

“Events have brought our American democracy to new influence and new responsibilities,” said Truman. “This will test our courage, our devotion to duty and our concept of liberty. Tyranny,” he continued in words that could have been uttered today, “is not new in the world. As long as democracy has existed, so has tyranny. But never has it been harder for tyranny and democracy to coexist.”

“The reason is the elimination of distance,” said Truman. “Where once we could ignore a far off tyranny, there are no longer any far-off places. Today, everybody on the globe is our neighbor.”

Truman and the leaders of his time responded to this new reality by inventing institutions that would increase cooperation among nations. These included NATO, the UN, the Organization of American States and Bretton Woods. Over the years, the combined strength of those organizations made the world more prosperous, brought down the Berlin Wall and helped make the democratic tide a rising tide on every continent.

Today, our leaders face a similar choice. The extent of American power has created an opportunity for us to make our nation more secure within a world that is healthier, richer and more peaceful than it has ever been. But if we are not prudent in exercising that power, we will create resentments that will make it much harder in the long run to achieve our goals.

After September 11, 2001, former President George Bush said he hoped the shock of the terror attacks would [and I quote] “erase the concept in some quarters that America can go it alone in the fight against terrorism or in anything else for that matter.[unquote]” During his trip to Europe next month for a meeting with the other great industrialized countries, the members of the G-8, the current President Bush will have the opportunity to clarify the character and purpose of American leadership. I hope the President’s message will be a unifying and an uplifting one, reaching minds and hearts across every border of geography and culture.

I hope the President will emphasize not only what our country is against in the world, but also what America is for: taking a hard line against terror, but also outlining plans to strengthen democracy, forge peace in the Middle East, help people around the world to live better lives, and transform the plague of HIV/AIDS from a menace into a memory. I hope he will put to rest suspicions about our intentions in Iraq, and fears that we see ourselves as somehow above the international standards we apply to other countries. I hope he will be frank in stating American positions but also clear in recognizing that others have their own views and that nothing is more natural than disagreement and debate among the leaders of free societies. And I hope he will reaffirm America’s conviction that the alliances and institutions created by Harry Truman’s generation are platforms for progress, not relics to be bypassed for fear they will hold us back or tie us down.

We have to stop bashing the United Nations. Granted it’s full of foreigners, which frankly can’t be helped. There are times when the United States, like any country, must act alone to defend its most vital interests. But today, in most places, in most cases, America will stand taller and do better if we are part of a larger team.

This matters to us all, because we have learned over and over again through history that the ideals transmitted and cherished at Washington University and other great centers of liberal education are not self-perpetuating. Our ideals have enemies, and those enemies can amass great power and inflict enormous harm, especially when democratic forces are divided and bickering.

Even the closest of friends will not agree on every specific issue or policy. No nation sees the world precisely the same as any other. What is vital is that free nations continue to agree on the big things, so that past mistakes become future lessons, and the demons of terror and totalitarianism, genocide and ethnic cleansing, are recognized early and stoutly opposed.

To the Class of 2003, let me say that I do not intend this afternoon to put the weight of the world upon your shoulders, for that is your parents’ job. However, 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. I hope you will 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. Today, at this ceremony of celebration and anticipation, I urge us all to embrace the faith that every dispute remedied by our patience, every prejudice rebutted by our courage, every danger surmounted by our vigilance, and every barrier to justice brought down by our determination will ennoble our own lives, inspire others, and explode outward the boundaries of what is achievable on this earth.

To those who graduate today, I again say, “Congratulations, the world is waiting for you.” And thank you again for inviting me to share with you this glorious day.