Commencement | Senator Richard G. Lugar Address to SPA Graduates

Commencement Address

American University School of Public Affairs

May 7, 2011

Senator Richard G. Lugar


I am honored to join you today for this commemoration of the achievements of the graduates of 2011. We come together to celebrate a high moment in the lives of all who will receive diplomas. This day also marks a very special milestone in the lives of parents, grandparents, children, family members, and friends who have given love, inspiration, and support to these graduates. We salute all who have made personal or financial sacrifices to help these graduates complete their studies and prepare for the next step of their careers.


As we honor individual scholarship today, we also celebrate the work of this university. For decades, American University and the School of Public Affairs have been prolific contributors to the skills and intellectual inquiry that our world needs to advance peace and prosperity. This school has brought together teachers, practitioners, and students from every corner of the globe, good people who exemplify creativity and optimism for the future.


We are sending these graduates into a world that is uncertain and dangerous and into an American society that is politically divided and questioning its own future. We are asking you to be leaders and experts within governments, corporations, schools, and communities who can unite, and even inspire, people to embrace productive solutions to problems.


Such responsibility is not new for American University graduates. As much as any university in the United States of America, this school was founded on the premise that skilled leaders, steeped in the history and philosophy of public policy, and devoted to the concept of service are vital for ensuring our country’s security and prosperity. It is not a surprise that AU students have been ranked more than once as the most politically active students in the nation or that AU students last year provided more than 100,000 hours of volunteer service.


Around the United States this month, ceremonies are commemorating the entry of students into their chosen fields. But few graduates, if any, are poised to have more impact on our nation’s future than you may have in this historic moment of need. Your education here in the nation’s capital has been inextricably linked with the issues that confront American leaders on a daily basis. That is an enviable platform from which to enter public service, and you should always be proud that you studied at this university in this historic city.


The United States remains the most successful experiment in economic liberty and human freedom in the history of the world. In the last century, it is difficult to overestimate the role that the United States played in overcoming forces of tyranny and economic stagnation. Despite some missteps, I believe this is indisputable from any objective point of view.


The United States was the deciding force in defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II. After the war, we helped rehabilitate our enemies, and they quickly established strong economies and vibrant democracies. We also helped countries such as South Korea and Taiwan move from extreme poverty to impressive prosperity through our assistance and protection. During the Cold War, we stared down the Soviet Union at great risk and expense, while functioning as the world’s economic engine. Before the century ended, the tangible results of our global leadership were changing the game. The Soviet Union fell, Germany was united, China adopted a market-driven economic philosophy, and many countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa became more democratic.


American democratic institutions and political and social freedoms served as models for the world, as we actively helped to nurture democratic transformations. Even Americans themselves do not fully appreciate the international impact of the example set by our transparent political debate and our extraordinary degree of public self-examination that accompanies U.S. policy decisions.


Furthermore, the United States has continued to perform a little-appreciated global security function during the post-Cold War era. Our armed forces, by their mere presence, have deterred major wars and minor conflicts. Our Navy has been the principle force for maintaining order on the high seas, and the alliance structures we built have brought stability and prosperity to previously volatile regions in Europe and Asia.


Americans have led the world’s fight against disease and hunger. Beyond our own multi-billion dollar programs, the programs of other nations and many non-governmental groups depend on the United States for direction and for support. The United States is also the undisputed leader in disaster assistance, because we have been willing to apply both our financial strength and our logistics capabilities to humanitarian relief in catastrophic situations like the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 and Japan’s recent earthquake. We have even helped the former Soviet Union protect and destroy the very nuclear arsenal that was once pointed at us.


But in the 21st Century, it has become increasingly popular to question American power and influence. The media frequently runs stories on the theme that America’s days as an economic superpower are numbered. Commentators focus on the maturity of our economy, the rise of China, uncertainty over the dollar’s strength, military overreach, the continuing threat of terrorism, and many other reasons why American power will be eclipsed. But I do not believe that our current set of problems predestines the United States to experience an era of decline.


Much of what is identified as decline is actually a sign of how successful the United States has been in exporting our political ideals and economic system. For example, China’s economic growth is not because of the communist party structure, which remains an encumbrance, but because it has embraced many market principles.


The United States has been the main author of a gradual global transformation that is miraculous and unprecedented, but also uncertain and messy. One of the manifestations of this success is that nations that used to be on the periphery continue to join the world system as full partners. Just as Germany, Japan, and South Korea helped invigorate the Cold War global economy, now we are seeing the rise of China, India, and Brazil. This dynamic is reflected in the fact that the G-20 group of nations, which includes even smaller economic powers such as Indonesia, Argentina, and South Africa, is supplanting the G-7 as the most notable gathering on the global economic stage. It is also reflected in the democracy movement in the Middle East, where populations long denied a voice in their own political affairs and economic futures have risen up to challenge repressive governments.


The advancement of other nations may affect our relative power, but it need not reduce our security, our standard of living, or our philosophical influence. The United States can compete successfully in the world. In fact, I believe the society you are about to enter holds enormous opportunity and promise. The United States is still the nation with the best hand to play and the one most capable of adapting to changing conditions.


Our competitive advantage is undergirded by the very thing that we are celebrating here at AU today. No other nation enjoys the quality and variety of post-secondary education options that exist in the United States. And no other country has a deeper tradition of individual achievement, freedom, and entrepreneurial spirit. These attributes have helped us create the broadest scientific and technological base, the most advanced agriculture system, and the most influential culture in the contemporary world.


The current climate of international economic dynamism rewards education above all other commodities. It rewards those with multiple skills who dedicate themselves to a lifetime of learning. The United States will flourish in the global marketplace, if education remains a top priority and if we nurture the competitive genius of the American people that has allowed us time and again to reinvent our economy.


We have unmatched intellectual capital and sophisticated investors who are willing to take risks. We also have the advantage of a younger and more mobile population than exists in most other industrialized nations. Talented people want to learn, invest, and live in the United States. Many of them recognize that the American experiment in liberty is unique in its ambitions and values and our freedom to profit from new ideas has few limits.


To take full advantage of these strengths, we must overcome structural problems that will accompany the expansion of global prosperity. At the top of this list are problems that will be associated with the provision of energy and food. The advancement of China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and other populous countries will put intense pressures on basic commodities worldwide. As a nation whose oil import bill is now near a billion dollars a day, the United States is especially vulnerable to supply disruptions and long term declines in production. Most other economic vulnerabilities, including our serious debt crisis, are primarily political in origin and can be addressed through political and economic decisions. But solving our energy vulnerability will require not only political leadership, it will require technological breakthroughs, good managerial practices, diversity of supply, and flexibility in our markets.


As for food, we are already seeing the effects of food shortages and high prices, which have been factors in almost every Middle Eastern country that has experienced upheaval. This underscores the pivotal position of the United States as the largest and most diverse grower and exporter of food. This role comes with both enormous economic opportunities and national security imperatives.


As with energy, the world will experience explosive growth in demand for food. The United States must give high priority to executing a global food policy that both creates export opportunities for our farmers and agricultural businesses and addresses hunger in volatile regions that could negatively impact our national security.


As graduates of an elite school of public policy, many of you will be going to work for governments at the federal, state, or local levels. Others will be working for corporations or non-profits or launching your own enterprises. Some of you will choose the callings of teaching, justice, military service, or even elective office. However you plan to contribute, you must think beyond your immediate concerns and find within yourself the will to lead. You must understand how blessed you are to sit here today and how much our country and even the international community will depend on you.


I am confident that you will not be intimidated by the challenging work before you. You will affirm the accomplishment of your diploma by growing in your abilities to learn and to apply your expertise. We congratulate you for your commitment to knowledge, and we look forward to all the service to others that you will give and all the important goals that you will achieve.

God bless you, and God bless America.

###