I am truly honored to be with you on this special day of reflection and celebration.  My role is simple: to celebrate you and your achievements and this institution and its purpose.  And not to speak for too long.

This city is often defined as a place of back-biting, power plays and self-serving.   I know that Washington.

But there is another Washington, your Washington, the Washington of SAIS and its scholars and students.  That Washington shows the best of America:

This American story is not closed to the world.  It has an enduring openness and commitment to a better world, reflected in the mission of this institution and the graduating class today, drawn from over 50 countries. 

Wherever you are from, and wherever you are going next, each one of you is now a contributor to that story.  I hope you are as proud of your achievements as your parents and friends are of you.   You have our sincere applause and congratulations.

It’s a long time since I went to graduate school in the late 1980s.  So more or less in the Stone Age.

I expected the Professors to be good.  And they were.  But what really struck me when I arrived was that the other students were amazing. 

I arrived full of Oxford’s premium on instant opinions. The students around me were interested in facts, analysis, nuance, perspective. 

I have tried to hold onto those qualities as a policy advisor, as an elected politician, as a Minister and now as an NGO leader.

My fellow students taught me something else, even more important, that I still try to put into practice every day in my job as the head of an NGO: life and work are team sports, and great teams are defined by the abiding interest of every member of the team in the success of other members of the team.

Mike Bloomberg, in whose building you study, says that “working collectively is the difference between mediocrity by yourself and success as a team”.

Please take a moment to think of those sitting amongst you now.  Those who have provided encouragement, picked you up when you were down, set an example for you to follow, been your teachers.  Never take them for granted.

At SAIS, you have studied our flammable world.  What defines it.  What defiles it.  Now you will enter the world you have studied.  And you, we, need to do decide what to do about it.

My three messages today are simple but heartfelt. 

Message One: Thank you for studying global affairs.  Really, thank you.  I believe you should be proud of your vocation to understand the realities faced by others.

You are not faceless “globalists”.   We need to take on that epithet. 

The assertion of those who use “globalist” as a term of abuse is that to be concerned about the world is to neglect the home front. The truth is the opposite: you, with your concern to understand what is happening beyond your locality and your nation, are the face of a better future for your localities and nations.

The reason is simple: we live in a connected world.

The problems we face do not come from too much global power; global institutions that are too strong; global norms that are a straitjacket; global laws that are stifling; global aid that is too generous. 

The real problem is the opposite. Global institutions that are too weak, global laws and norms that are not enforced, global justice that is denied.

We need more global perspective not less, more globalists not fewer.

Message two: We have urgent work to do. 

The world is richer than ever; better educated, especially for women, than ever before; better empowered with insights from science than ever before; better connected by technology than ever before.

But there are more wars, more coups, more refugees and more people in humanitarian need.

I lead a large humanitarian organization.  There is less power than in government, but more freedom.

The International Rescue Committee has more than 25000 employees in 330 field sites in 45 countries.  Last year we helped 33 million people whose lives are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their lives.    

Emergency medical operations in Gaza, malnutrition treatment in Sudan, girls’ education in Afghanistan, immunization in Somalia, legal rights at the US southern border.  These are our business.

In other words we help people who are failed by the processes you have studied: development, politics, deterrence, risk analysis, negotiation.

I hope one day some of you will join us and become part of our team.  And those who don’t come and work for us can donate to us…making the world a better place is a team sport.

This leads me to message 3.   Our flammable world is full of tinder and full of arsonists; some of them are in power; so we need fire fighters, preventing fire and fighting fire with bravery, with insight, with innovation.

Global connectedness is tinder.  So are visible inequalities.  And resource stress exacerbated by the climate crisis.  And power vacuums. And weakened international guardrails made of paper not steel.

That is how you end up in a situation where a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with an obligation to uphold regional peace and security, invades its neighbor; where deaths in war are concentrated among civilians; where aid is debated as a generous favor from belligerent armies a primary responsibility.

The scholar Robert Kagan says that world order is one of those things that people don’t think about until it is gone.  In his book “The Jungle Grows Back” he says that “the question is not what will bring down the liberal order but what can possibly hold it up?”.

In my metaphor, the question is not what will light the fires, but what will douse them and prevent them.  For that we need more firefighters.

So whether you are heading for public service, private enterprise, or the non-profit sector…possibly after a summer holiday or at least a party or two…please think how you are going to build insulation against fire, and put out the flames that arise. 

If you are going to be a diplomat, address yourself to the task of peace-building as well as peace-making.  As Churchill said, Jaw jaw is better than war war.

If you are going into business, remember that the benefits of globalization will only continue to flow if you help bear the burdens. Corporate social results are an investment in the bottom line.

And if you are coming to the non profit sector, be ready to be a social entrepreneur, with the three qualities that I have learnt make the biggest difference: 

The bias to action: we attack problems don’t admire them. 

The embrace of risk: we can’t afford to be satisfied with the status quo.

The determination to speak for universal values: not just the willingness but the mission to defend what humans have in common at home and abroad.

Your story begins now. And you can choose how to write it.  You are the next chapter in the great tradition of this School.

SAIS was founded when the world was on fire.  One of the founders, the great diplomat Paul Nitze, said: “Early in life, as a witness to the limitless tragedy of World War 1, I felt grow in me a determination to act, to work with others to influence the course of history and not supinely accept what, in the absence of will and action, might be the world’s fate.”

Today, we see the world through our phones, so we are witness to triumph and tragedy on a scale that Nitze could not imagine. We don’t have the excuse that we don’t know what is happening in Sudan or Gaza or Venezuela or Ukraine.

In your studies you have learnt the formal skills of social analysis and policy making.  But in your time here you have learnt the informal skills of how to build bridges, how to forge partnerships, and how to build networks.

The global fire service needs both those sets of skills.  We need your brains and your hearts and your address books. 

Please: remember to be a firefighter.  That is the task and I look forward to working on it with you.