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Madeleine Albright Urges Graduates to Look Beyond America’s Borders


Madeline Albright
Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government/staff photographer

Madeline Albright
Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government/staff photographer

Speaking on an unusually warm May afternoon, former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright, LL.D. ’97, called on the Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) more than 500 soon-to-be graduates Wednesday to embrace globalism and international cooperation, and to take up the mantle of U.S. leadership abroad.

“To have a full and rewarding future, you will have to look outwards, not inwards,” Albright said. Condemning what she views as a dangerous current of isolationism taking hold in American politics, she continued, “There are still many in Washington and around our country who think of America as an island...They refuse to accept that America’s interests are linked to the security and prosperity of allies and friends….We cannot will away or wall away the world.” A global worldview also requires us to recognize the humanity of people who are not like us, she stressed, echoing a theme raised by Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt at Tuesday’s Phi Beta Kappa exercises. “We will only be able to deal with the refugee crisis,” she said, “the greatest humanitarian disaster since World War II, if we cooperate with others and recognize that we must take in more refugees ourselves while we tell everybody else what to do.”

Albright, the first woman to be appointed secretary of state and now a professor of international relations at Georgetown, also spoke and received an honorary degree at Commencement in 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of the announcement of the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Western Europe after World War II—unveiled during Harvard’s 1947 graduation exercises.

“While two decades have passed, much of what I said on that day is just as relevant today,” Albright said, echoing her words from 1997: “Today, the greatest danger to America is not some foreign enemy. It is the possibility that we will fail to hear the example of George Marshall’s generation; that we will allow the momentum towards democracy to stall; take for granted the institutions and principles upon which our own freedom is based; and forget what history reminds us: that problems abroad, if left unattended, will all too often come home to America.” Renewing this message for the HKS class of 2016, she urged: 

[Y]our generation…must treat this as another clarifying moment in our history. Because a decade or two from now, you could be known as neo-isolationists who allowed tyranny and lawlessness to rise again; or as those who solidified the global triumph of democratic principles. You could be known as the neo-protectionists, whose lack of vision produced economic catastrophe; or as those who laid the groundwork for rising prosperity around the world…You could be known as the world-class ditherers, who stood by while the seeds of renewed global conflict were sown; or as those that took strong measures to forge alliances, deter aggression, and keep the peace.

“No country has greater reason for pride in its tradition of leadership, a tradition that has been upheld by both ends of the political spectrum,” she argued, urging the graduates not to shy away from the United States’s role as a global leader.

Albright denounced political currents on both the right and left, alluding, seemingly, to the anti-government ideology of Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates, and the anti-trade, protectionist platform of Bernie Sanders. “More and more, we hear politicians and pundits proclaiming that government is the source of evil, and that officials in Washington want nothing more than to deprive citizens of their rights,” Albright said. “When I was secretary of state, I traveled to many countries that might be considered a libertarian paradise because the hand of government is so weak. In quite a few nations, the governments don’t have the resources to provide Social Security, or Medicare, or electricity, or paved roads, or clean water, or independent courts.”

The challenges America faces today, domestically and abroad, appear to rival those faced by the generation of George Marshall in the wake of the Second World War, she said: “Overseas, there was a daunting array of dangers….At home, there was talk about the need for bipartisanship, but there were also currents of recrimination and scapegoating that would produce the McCarthy era.” Ours is a uniquely difficult time, in which advances in technology have amplified the voices of demagogues and stirred public passions, provoked failed revolutions and widened social conflicts throughout the world. But, she pressed on, “[Y]ou must remember that there is not a page of American history, of which we are proud, that was authored by a chronic complainer or prophet of despair. We are doers.”

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