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Commencement Address by the Rt Hon David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee

Addressed to the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University


I want to offer sincere congratulations to the SIPA graduating class of 2017, and genuine thanks to all of the parents, grandparents and friends who have helped make their success possible.  The standards at Columbia are high, the pace frenetic, the diversity of classmates from 78 countries inspiring, but the expectations are challenging and the aspirations limitless, so the admiration and good wishes need to be sincere too.  From me I assure you they are. 

I applaud those of you from public service for your dedication to serve fellow citizens.

I admire those of you from the military for your courage and service.

I support those of you from the private sector who want to broaden your experience.

I recognize those of you from the NGO sector for what you will bring back.

I thank those of you who have come from abroad to further enrich this extraordinary city, proving every day that diversity is strength.

And I especially celebrate that there are students here from Sudan, Iran, Syria and Libya:  the university has made you welcome here, and your presence defies the idea that America needs a travel ban to protect itself from you.

I did my graduate degree at MIT.  I hope the Professors don’t mind if I say that I learnt the most from my classmates.  We dispersed into academia, government, business.  Today the people I met still matter to me and still guide me.  So I hope you find time today to thank each other.

When the Dean asked me to address you today I was honored to be asked.  And sometimes you make a speech because you are honored.  But in this case I wanted to speak to you, for a particular reason: there is a fight on for the shape of our global community, and you and your learning and your networks and your aspirations need to be part of it.

Just think: The two years since most of you started your course have seen massive change in the global political landscape.  Graduating with a degree from a school with the word international in the title suddenly seems counter-cultural.  “Globalist” has – in a chilling way - become a term of abuse. 

I am sorry to be blunt but the times are urgent.  The fight is not traditional left versus right, though issues of inequality are part of it; nor west versus rest, even though geopolitics is relevant; nor strong versus weak, although there are some surprising alliances.  It is a fight for open societies versus closed, multilateral cooperation over unilateral grandstanding, the benefits of pluralism over the tyranny of groupthink, and the enduring importance of universal values over the slicing and dicing of populations and religions in a fake and faulty clash of civilizations. 

It is a fight for values and insights and institutions that imperfectly uphold the best of human nature in the face of impulses and arguments that humor the worst.  One of my great political heroes, Willy Brandt, who was mayor of Berlin when the wall was built and became Chancellor of Germany wrote in his memoirs: “Walls in people’s mind are sometimes more durable than walls made of concrete blocks.”

That is the challenge we face today.

I see this every day in my work running a humanitarian charity offering support for refugees and displaced people around the world and resettling refugees in the US.

Refugees and displaced people are today caught in a vice.  They are running from civil wars more numerous, more brutal and more extended; and they face increasingly hostile conditions when they flee, as international aid is increasingly inadequate and options for asylum harder to access.

IRC was founded in this city in 1933, by Albert Einstein.    We work in war zones like Syria and Somalia delivering health care, water and sanitation; fragile states like Jordan and Uganda offering education, protection for women and children, and livelihoods support; and on refugee transit routes like Niger and Serbia supporting families in crisis.  In 29 US cities, including New York, we help the lucky few refugees who make it to the US start new lives. 

We have learnt this over the 85 years of our history:  When countries are confident, they are open to and engaged with the world, helping the most vulnerable beyond their shores out of humanity and sense of responsibility but also out of self-interest.  And when countries are fearful or doubtful, lacking vision and direction, they close up, even to people whose stories would make your heart melt. That is the situation today. 

In that sense refugees are a weathervane for the direction of globalization, and symbolic of the choice we now face:  to make globalization fair, or to see it in retreat.

My point to you today is that the special benefits of your education bring special responsibilities at this time of unusual flux and challenge, not just for refugees but for all of us on this crowded, inspiring, exploited, unique planet. 

Your education has been internationalist.  Keep thinking that way. 

Your education has been interdisciplinary.  Don’t give up on that.  The future belongs to leaders who can navigate public, private and non-profit sectors.

Your education has mixed students from public, private and NGO sectors.  Hold onto that. 

Your education has upheld the core idea of a university – that diverse points of view are vital to good decision making.  Never let that go. 

You have studied public policy.  So did I.  I first took my learning into a think tank.  Then into opposition politics.  Then into Government as an advisor.  Then into Parliament. Then into Ministerial roles.  And now into the NGO sector. 

The hardest thing has been to keep on innovating, making time for thinking, studying what your opponents say, because sometimes they are right, challenging yourself to think bolder.  When we launched the world’s first legally binding long term carbon emissions reduction scheme, the origins were in a determination not to rest on our laurels and be outflanked by the opposition.

The most rewarding thing has been to carry on learning.  Lots of politics and government is about talking.  But there aren’t enough good listeners.  The most successful leaders are good at both.  And I mean really listening, not pretending.

I thought I would share with you three reflections on what I would be prioritizing if I was setting out on my professional career today.

The first is the need to bring the politics and economics of globalization into harmony.

When I went into politics in the 1990s it seemed that economics and politics were aligned behind rising wealth and growing stability.  The Governor of the Bank of England called it the NICE decade – non inflationary continuous expansion. 

Yet today globalization is too unequal, too insecure and too unstable for its own good.  Just think:

  • The global economy is boosted by migration; yet the politics of migration is tearing western societies apart. The vitriolic anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric that you all saw last year is evidence of this.
  • The global economy is stabilized by international economic cooperation and mutual support, including of creditors to debtors.  Local politics, as the Euro crisis shows, is resistant to this bargain. 
  • Global economics is boosted by open trade.  The evidence is clear.  Yet equally clear is that the local politics is in revolt. The US pulling out of TPP is a case in point.
  • Global economics demands investment in the young and retraining of the middle class.  Local politics is driven by the high voting rates of the old.

Unless the economics of globalization starts to serve majorities not minorities, it will suffer more than a backlash.  It will be sent into reverse. 

The second reflection is the importance of learning the lessons from this phase of globalization.

There are lessons from failure.  There is fatigue about international engagement because of the scarring experience of regime change in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.  There is skepticism about the competence of regulators and the morality of business because of the global financial crisis, in which those who did the most harm seem to suffer the least damage.  Trade agreements are now tainted by the hardships of unemployed autoworkers in Flint. There is revolt over immigration because integration has been haphazard. 

All this makes sense.  But there are also lessons in the successes of globalization, and the need to mitigate the risks of success not just the risks of failure.  I have never really thought in this way before, but it seems increasingly important.

The post war order set out to expand markets.  It has been phenomenally successful.  In fact more successful than anyone could have imagined.  Global GDP has grown 50 times since 1960.[1]  But the result is a major shift in the balance of economic power away from the western world towards the east with no plan for managing that new balance of power.

The post war order set out to create a more interconnected world.  It has succeeded beyond wild dreams.  Now we are hyper-connected, inextricably linked in terms of security, health, and economics.  But that means the global system is more and more vulnerable to shocks from weak links in the chain – whether banking systems that are not sustainable, or airport security systems that are not strong, or public health systems that do not work.  A connected world is more vulnerable to systemic shocks.

The post war world set out to empower individuals through education and technology.  Again, wild success with well over 3 billion people using the internet today.  But that has left governmental institutions looking like dinosaurs in the digital age.   Last month, a survey of 6,000 Europeans in seven countries showed that just half of Europeans aged 16-26 believe democracy is the best form of government.[2]

At each stage, the global order has sown the seeds of its own crisis, without the stabilizing force of social justice. 

These are the challenges that today need to be addressed. So my third reflection is on the importance of bringing values back into the debate about our shared future. 

I like policy.  I have been called a policy wonk.  But policy without values is barren, just as values without policy lack impact.

The truth is, we need to decide what kind of society we want to be, what kind of humanity we want to be, and then find the policies to deliver it, rather than the other way round. 

Think of the defining characteristics of the wonderful education you have received at this school: equal worth, pluralism, mutual respect, internationalism.  They are key values that I believe need to be asserted and defended in the world today. 

The equal worth of each of you.  As you went about your daily learning, there were no special privileges, and help for one was available to all.  It is the essence of your community. Today that needs to be reasserted

Pluralism, the celebration and promotion of diverse views, is to me the essence of a stable society.  It leads to institutions that defend individual rights, constitutions that protect minorities, laws that protect freedom of thought, religion and speech.  Deny pluralism, and the assault on pluralism is the essential plank of populism, and you deny the foundation of good government.

Mutual respect.  The core of a university says research and thought advance knowledge, that knowledge should be transmitted from one generation to the next, and that facts are different from opinions.  As a famous Senator from this state once said, “you are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts”. 

You have learnt that there are not alternative facts; there are alternative opinions.  We need to fight for this.

And internationalism, not renouncing your patriotism or your identity, but refusing to decry or hate other nationalities.  You will have been taught in your classes that foreign and domestic policy are linked.  In fact it is hard to think of a domestic economic policy, or security policy, or criminal justice policy, or health policy that does not have to take account of risks, constraints and opportunities abroad.  Internationalism is in the air we breathe. 

Every day I see what happens when fundamentals of equal worth, pluralism, mutual respect and internationalism are under assault.  Children are not educated; women and girls are abused; displaced people are left in limbo.

My message is: don’t be afraid of your values, they are your sharpest sword and strongest shield. In the words of Vaclav Havel, “Vision is not enough, it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.”

The Cold War was fought to break down walls.   The danger now is the opposite: that new walls define the first half of the 21st century in the way that the Iron Curtain defined the second half of the 20th century. And then on the back of walls to keep people out comes a vacuum in the international system: weaker multilateral institutions, more erratic unilateral demarches by countries with the ability to enforce their will, more disorder in the global commons.

Our job, together, whatever our field, public, private or non-profit sector, is to fight this. A world of connections, diversity, and compassion is not cosmopolitan or western; it is the best of humanity, which we must defend together. I look forward to doing so with you.



[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD

[2] http://www.dw.com/en/study-reveals-half-of-young-europeans-are-skeptical...

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 28 offices across the U.S. helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.